Home invasion films as a subgenre are a challenging lot. Often, it’s hard to say that they are “enjoyable” or “entertaining” films considering the subject matter is usually really dark. There are some exceptions to the rule. There are actually some comedy home invasion films, but for every comedy there are dozens of darker films. So while they as a whole might not be enjoyable in a traditional way, they are often extremely effective. What’s scarier: a monster that doesn’t exist or regular people invading a home and torturing the occupants? Home invasions are in the news all the time so these sorts of films are much more grounded in reality and believable which makes them extremely scary. As a child, we are often scared that the boogie man will get us in the dark so we huddle in our beds for safety. For some reason we believed that we were safe in our beds. That feeling extends to the home for many adults so the scariest thing that could happen would be that some evil entity actually breaks through the magical wall that separates us from the rest of the world once we are at home. So if you dare, here is a list of the top 10 home invasion movies:
10. Fight for Your Life (1977)
Directed by Robert A Endelson
Starring William Sanderson, Daniel Faraldo
This was a challenging film for the era in which it was made and an impossible film for this more modern “Politically Correct” era. Fight for Your Life came toward the end of the exploitation cinema of the 1970’s when films were still made just to be shown in gritty beat up back alley theaters. The basic story is that a group of criminals invade the home of an African American family. The ethnicity of the family is important to mention because the level of racism in this film is nearly unparalleled. William Sanderson (Deadwood) plays the lead criminal and he delivers a never ending tirade of racist slang that has to be uncomfortably heard to be believed. The patriarch of the family is a minister who eventually attempts to turn the tables on the criminals by the end of the film. It’s worth mentioning that the marketing of this film was even handled in a way that studios wouldn’t even consider for modern films. Two trailers were cut for the film and released in different neighborhoods. A trailer focusing on the family seeking revenge and fighting off the criminals was released in African American neighborhood theaters and a second trailer focused more on the criminals was released everywhere else. The commentary with the director on the DVD is an entertaining listen as he recounts screening where audience members really got so mad at the film that they ripped up these already beat up theaters. The film is a victim of its age but overall for fans of the home invasion sub genre of film it’s still a must watch.
9. The Strangers 2008
Directed by Brian Bertino
Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
The Strangers is apparently based on a real home invasion that took place in England. The film starts with a couple (Speedman and Tyler) heading to a secluded vacation house for a little R&R. While dealing with their own interpersonal drama, they receive a knock at the door in the early morning hours. What follows is a surprisingly violent fight for survival where this couple goes to places they never thought possible in an attempt to survive. The three home invaders hide their faces behind some seriously creepy masks and one of them is a seriously creepy young woman. This film needs to be viewed with a good sound system because a lot of the atmosphere and the scares utilize sound as much as visual. Scott Speedman is normally kind of flat, but he’s just fine in this film and Liv Tyler is great as always. Tyler gets one of her best scenes from a simple facial expression in the first few minutes of the film.
8. Desperate Hours (1990)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Starring Michey Rourke, Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers
This little known bit of home invasion awesomeness pits Mickey Rourke against Anthony Hopkins! The set up here is a fairly formulaic one for the home invasion film. Mickey Rourke plays Michael Bosworth, a psychotic criminal who is about to go on trial for his crimes when he decides to make a run for it with the help of his lawyer whom he has established a relationship with. In the escape she is left behind so Bosworth decides to wait for her to meet up with him in an unsuspecting family’s home. Bosworth gets more than he bargained for when he meets the occupants of the house. The Cornell family is being rocked by the upcoming split of Tim and Nora and their tension spills over into the ordeal they are put through by Bosworth. This film could have been just another bit of formula but the charisma of Hopkins and Rourke and to some extent even Mimi Rogers added that little extra to the film that made it stand above a lifetime movie.
7. Panic Room 2002
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam
In this film, Jodie Foster plays a single mother buying a new home for her and her daughter played by a young Kristen Stewart. Inside the house is a very unique closet, a panic room. The panic room is meant as a place the occupants of the house can retreat to if their house is invaded. The concept is not a new one by any means but the technology behind this particular panic room is cutting edge, or was at the time the film was released. A group of burglars are aware of a hidden treasure inside the house and bust in to steal it. Things get a lot more challenging for them when the mother and daughter lock themselves into the impenetrable panic room and are able to see everything the burglars are doing via video cameras paced in the house and a monitoring system inside the room. The story is simple enough that the film can focus on the suspense and drama, and the characters. The mother and daughter simply want to survive and the criminals want the hidden money so while they try to figure out a way to get into the panic room, the mother is trying to discover a way to save her daughter who is suffering from a major asthma attack and her inhaler is, of course, not in the panic room. The thrills and suspense are slick and extremely well executed and Jodie Foster and Forest Whitaker are always fantastic to watch. Dwight Yoakam is the real surprise in this film. He’s extremely entertaining. This is a Hollywood movie without a doubt so it lakes some of the gritty reality of some of the greatest home invasion films but what it lacks in those respects it makes up for in strong actors and creative execution.
6. Home Alone 1990
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O’Hara
This film was crafted by two icons of the 80’s: John Hughes and Chris Columbus. Hughes, of course, made Molly Ringwald a star with films such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club and Columbus wrote such classics as The Goonies and Gremlins. The two craftsmen came together to make young Macaulay Culkin a star as the kid whose parents don’t seem to like him in Home Alone. Culkin plays Kevin, a mopey kid who’s almost invisible in the chaos that is his family. AHis family leaves home on a trip to Europe and his mother played by the always hilarious Caterine O’Hara realizes too late that she has forgotten her son and well left him home alone. At first Kevin enjoys living home alone and just when he starts to realize that it’s Christmas and he’s alone two bumbling criminals decide to break into his house. The remainder of the film is a series of gags taken right from the best Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons. The humor in the film is a little dated but overall it’s still a funny romp and a great home invasion film for the whole family, which is something very uncommon in this genre of film.
5. Black Christmas 1974
Directed by Bob Clark
Starring Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder
Filmmakers love to set horror films during Christmas. The overabundance of joy during that time of year makes for a great backdrop to horrific crimes. In Black Christmas, a sorority house is prepping for the holiday while constantly getting menacing heavy breathing phone calls. When one of the sorority sisters disappears the remaining occupants of the house contact the police. As is common in these sorts of films the cops aren’t overly concerned. After all, this is the holiday season and these are booze guzzling assumedly promiscuous college girls. Little do any of them know that a murderer has taken up residence in the attic of the sorority house and he plans to celebrate Christmas in his own nightmarish way. The film is nowhere near as violent as more modern takes on the subject but even 36 years later the film still comes off quite stylized and the sense of dread is palpable throughout the film. If you only know Margot Kidder from the Superman movies, this one’s worth a watch because she’s great in it. Bob Clark was directing films in nearly every genre in the 70’s with horror installments such as Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things to sex comedies such as Porky’s. Black Christmas is easily one of his best films.
4. The Ref 1994
Directed by Ted Demme
Starring Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Christine Baranski
Not every home invasion film has to be part of the horror or suspense genres. The ref is a classic comedy featuring Denis Leary as thief forced to invade a home during Christmas when the police discover that he’s been robbing empty houses in an upscale neighborhood. The problem is that the family that has assembled at this house for the holiday is as dysfunctional as they come. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis play a couple living in the house owned by Spacey’s overbearing mother. Leary’s character pretends to be a marriage counselor for the couple in order to keep the rest of the family in the dark about why he is actually at the house during the family holiday. The Ref is easily one of the best holiday films ever made. Judy Davis, Denis Leary, and Christine Baranski are all hilarious and Spacey plays the perfect straight man caught between his wife and his mother. The film is a laugh riot from the opening moments where Denis Leary attempts to take out a guard dog with a ball from a pool table and the dog proceeds to literally eat the ball.
3. Inside 2007
Directed by Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury
Starring Beatrice Dalle, Alysson Paradis
A pregnant young woman and her husband are in a brutal car crash at the beginning of the movie leaving only the woman and her unborn child alive. On Christmas Eve the woman, named Sarah, decides to stay home alone to grieve for her husband and to prepare to go to the hospital the next day for the delivery of her baby. A woman knocks on Sarah’s door and asks to come in and use the phone. When Sarah refuses, the creepy woman reveals that she knows Sarah and tries to force her way in. What follows is a brutal war between Sarah and a strange woman who wants Sarah’s baby. Sure people come by to try and help Sarah, either get through her grief or save her from her attacker but they aren’t successful. This film is a part of a new generation of hyper violent extremely gory French horror films that started with films such as Haute Tension and In My Skin. The film is well acted and the claustrophobic nature of the shooting of the film is almost another character in and of itself.
2. Straw Dogs 1971
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George
Dustin Hoffman plays a weak math geek on sabbatical in rural England with his wife played by Susan George. The couple find themselves attacked in their temporary home by local’s intent on having their way with George. Straw Dogs is easily one of Peckinpah’s most effective films. The film is notorious for its extreme violence, but like A Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the bulk of the violence is created through clever editing and atmosphere rather than blatant blood spilling. You think you’ve just seen something unimaginable when in reality the film has successfully crafted this image in your mind without ever showing it. It’s gritty and often unrelenting but in comparison to films that came after it, Straw Dogs comes off tame as far as traditional on the nose style violence. The focus of the film is the breaking down of a man and what it takes to change him from a mild mannered man to a near monster. Hoffman makes watching this change a painful and amazing experience.
1. Funny Games 1997
Directed by Michael Haneke
Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe
Michael Haneke crafts some of the most controversial films in global cinema today. His films aren’t just edginess for the sake of edginess though. His films, for better or for worse, always have something to say. Whether it’s political, social, or some combination of the two, his films attempt to have an opinion. Funny Games has its crosshairs focused on media and its effect on youth. I don’t agree with everything Haneke says in the film, but being a fan of George Romero’s iconic zombie films such as Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies, I still appreciate the sort of grounding of the characters within the commentary. If it’s a blood spattered TV or a character literally speaking to the audience through the lens, Haneke’s message is clear. The base of the film is two elitist young men in their early 20’s take a family hostage in their own home. There’s tons of brutality and humiliation but it starts with psychological manipulations and between beatings, the smarter leader of the kidnappers inserts his impressions of the world and of this innocent family and uses those impressions to brutalize them. While the few brief times the main kidnapper steps out of the story to look into the screen to communicate with the audience do break the story, they also successfully uncomfortably pull us into the duo’s shenanigans. Funny Games is as aggressive as they come but at the same time the pacing is precisely slow. There’s one scene in particular that feels like it goes for a painful eternity when in reality it only holds for several minutes. Those several minutes do make the scene longer than any American filmmaker would have the guts to hold the shot. Haneke eventually remade his own film under the same title in the United States featuring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt and it’s a really solid remake, but the original German language version is the one to see.