The home invasion movie generally taps into societies fears about fast paced change in the world around them. The peaceful bubble of the middle-class family home is penetrated by dark outside forces. These lawless tormentors are usually portrayed as young people who want to tear up the prevailing order or as backward ‘locals’ who see modernity as a threat to their traditional way of life.
The home invasion is particularly popular in American movies because it explores similar themes to the Western genre, with civilization and the rights of the private citizen perceived to be under threat from the terror of vast open spaces and a flawed social order. Here are the ten best home invasion movies:
1 The People Under the Stairs
Fool’s mother is sick and unable to pay the rent so Fool is forced to help sneak into his landlord’s house to steal a collection of rare coins. The burglary goes wrong and Fool finds himself trapped in the house with a hoard of kidnapped and abused children who have turned into crazed cannibals.
Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991, US) is a fantasy horror with comic elements. The feral children who live under the stairs are scary, as are the abusive ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ figures who keep them prisoner but because the main protagonists are all children this home invasion movie occasionally takes on the feel of a family film.
2 Straw Dogs
Amy brings her American husband David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) to live in the sleepy English village where she grew up. Her ex-boyfriend and the other local men see David as a weak outsider and start pushing his buttons, culminating in a violent confrontation.
Peckinpah is better known for his westerns and Straw Dogs (1971, UK/US) is like a western transposed into a modern 70’s setting. The Sumners’ are the homesteaders fighting an attack by outlaws. The movie is considered controversial due to its heavy violence and an ambiguous rape scene but Straw Dogs set a template for the home invasion movies that followed.
3 Home Alone
Little Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) takes his family for granted until they accidentally leave him home alone, flying to France without him. Kevin learns responsibility while defending his house from two burglars who had planned to do the place over while the family was away.
A Christmas family favorite, Home Alone (Columbus, 1990, US) can also be interpreted as a mildly disturbing home invasion movie. The ‘wet bandits’ are a serious threat to Kevin but the threat is watered down to family friendly levels. The often extreme violence is mitigated by humor in a similar way to the violence of Tom and Jerry cartoons.
4 The Strangers
Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James are staying the night at a remote holiday home. In the middle of the night, a girl knocks on the door and asks someone they don’t know. Later, Kristen notices that items in the house have moved and a group of kids wearing masks begin to terrorize them.
Strangers (Bertino, 2008, US) claims to be inspired by true events and does bare a resemblance to a number of true-life crimes, most notably the Manson family murders. Strangers also has a striking similarity to French film Them but with notable differences. Much of the fear generated by the movie comes from the masks worn by the attackers, who appear as a constant silent threat.
5 The Purge: Anarchy
In the future, America is ruled by the ‘new founding fathers’ they keep order by legalizing murder for a 12 hour period each year. Eva and daughter Cali survive a home invasion but find themselves out on the dangerous streets.
For a refresher course on modern American politics watch the Purge trilogy. The message of sequel Purge: Anarchy (De Monaco, 2014, FR/US) is that in a world of extreme economic and political polarity it is the working poor and minorities that lose out. The mega wealthy can afford to protect their families on purge night or indulge in killing for sport, but the poor are sitting ducks unless they can learn to work together.
6 Them (ils)
A French couple who have moved to an isolated house in Romania are terrorized over the course of a night by several hooded assailants. They eventually leave the house and escape into the woods pursued by the attackers.
Them (Moreau/Palud, 2006, FR/RO) is a tense, tightly constructed journey into terror. The filmmakers claimed that what happened to the couple was ‘based on a true story,’ there is no real evidence that this is the case but the film is frightening enough regardless.
The film becomes even more unnerving after the attackers are revealed to be young teenagers inflicting misery and pain for kicks.
7 Panic Room
Meg (Jodi Foster) and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into a large townhouse with a panic room. When Meg is woken in the night by a home invasion she and Sarah lock themselves in the panic room, but unfortunately what the criminals want is in that room and they find themselves cut off from help.
In many ways, Panic Room (2002, US) is David Fincher doing Hitchcock. At the start, we are shown all the main elements that will become important during the course of the movie creating increasing levels of suspense. The movie is well cast and each of the robbers has their own conflicting motives for the heist creating many twists and turns.
8 The Collector
Arkin (Josh Stewart) is a handyman with a debt to pay. He plans to break into the house of his employer and steal a ruby, but when he gets inside he finds that a brutal serial killer called ‘the collector’ is already at work. Arkin tries to help the family, but the house is rigged from top to bottom with elaborate traps.
In this alternative home invasion movie, the invader becomes the hero. The Collector (Dunstan, 2009, US) uses innovative staging to ramp up the thrills; at several key moments the camera rises up giving us a floor plan view of where Arkin is in relation to the killer. Terrifying stuff!
9 Assault on Precinct 13
A little girl is shot by gang members. The girl’s father retaliates, killing the leader before fleeing to the local police precinct. Unfortunately, the precinct is being decommissioned and the minimal staff has to defend themselves against the gang in a violent shootout.
In John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, US) a police station is invaded rather than a home but the terror of the unknown is the same. The attack feels unprovoked and the never-ending hoards of attackers are like faceless shapes. It is as if the attack could have happened at any moment for any reason; the streets are lawless in this western style thriller.
10 Funny Games
Anna and Georg visit their holiday home with their son and dog. Two young men, Peter and Paul, arrive claiming to be friends of the neighbor but act bizarrely towards the family. When Georg asks them to leave, the two men take the family hostage and play with them like mice.
Funny Games (Haneke, 1997, AT) is the most realistic, and shocking of all home invasion movies. Much like the young men in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Peter and Paul are jovial yet detached throughout and have no motive for their attack except to alleviate boredom through ‘sport.’ The pair constantly breaks the fourth wall, making us complicit in their crime.