The concept of home invasion makes for extremely potent drama precisely because it is so deeply uncomfortable. Here, the villain is in plain sight, their intentions nakedly clear to their potential victim: there is something particularly haunting about being able to stare your enemy in the face. Rather than jump out from the shadows or from under the bed for a split-second confrontation, the conflict in a home invasion film remains in close contact but is drawn out significantly, sometimes to an almost unbearable degree.

Even more unsettling is the way this type of story hinges on the very concept of trust in your fellow man, and its limits. How much faith should we have in the people out there, and how much should we fear them and their intentions? Beyond a straightforward concern for one’s life, these questions also bring up with them much thornier anxieties around just how confident we should really be about our safety, and, in fact, about any of our day-to-day certainties.

If someone breaks in, does this mean we were wrong to feel protected – were we being arrogant? Conversely, are we sometimes being paranoid when we insist on locking all the doors and checking them twice? Is our trust in the safety of our own walls misguided, or are we being too optimistic about strangers?

In short, are we making fools of ourselves without even realising?

The selection below explores the ways filmmakers have delighted in exploring this heap of conflicting emotions.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Adapted from her own radio play by Lucille Fletcher, this film noir cleverly revolves around a series of phone conversations. Its set-up highlights some of the central dynamics at the heart of the home invasion film, no doubt later inspiring Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979) – itself the model for the opening scene of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).

Barbara Stanwyck stars as a bedridden woman whose main point of contact with the world is her landline, which she uses constantly. Desperate not to be left out and anxious not to be abandoned by her handsome husband (Burt Lancaster), her loneliness is so strongly felt that we wish someone would come and pay her a visit; the film’s power hinges on this oppressive feeling of alienation. When she overhears a murder plot due to a wrong connection, the outside world enters the film first through flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks) and, finally, with shocking violence.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Straw Dogs (1971)

Tied with the idea of protecting one’s home are macho ideas of man as the designated defender of his supposedly weaker wife and children. Yet just as sexist is the assumption that a man should be able to enter into any place he likes and cast out whatever stranger he disapproves of. The two concepts clash spectacularly in Straw Dogs, a powerful indictment of fragile male ego (though based on his own comments about the film, American director Sam Peckinpah may not have intended it so).

Dustin Hoffman puts his sometimes annoyingly mannered acting style to wonderful use as a bespectacled American mathematician who moves with his young wife (Susan George) to her Cornish hometown, where he is immediately ill at ease with the less sophisticated ways of the local men. For their part, they resent him being a stranger who seems to look down on them. Mutual suspicions and misunderstandings soon escalate, culminating in a sequence of breathtaking brutality.

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

Director: Fred Walton

When a Stranger Calls (1979)

It’s impossible to talk about home invasion films without mentioning Wes Craven’s masterpiece Scream and its flawlessly executed opening sequence. But neither would exist had it not been for When a Stranger Calls, itself expanded from Fred Walton’s own 1977 short film The Sitter, centred on a young babysitter harassed by a man on the phone, who asks her if she’s checked on the children.

Film openings don’t get much scarier, but, rather unexpectedly, the rest of When Stranger Calls takes a more sober, almost classical approach to suspense, moving at an oppressively portentous pace as it centres on the ominous atmosphere created by the escaped stranger of the title, himself abandoned by a failing mental health industry.

Home Alone (1990)

Director: Chris Columbus

Home Alone (1990)

On the poster for Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin makes a face like Munch’s The Scream, and the film has evoked for generations of traumatised viewers feelings of dread not too dissimilar to those captured by the famous Norwegian painting. Like many of the titles on this list, this Christmas classic flips the expectations of home invasion scenarios on their head by making the person inside the house a lot less helpless than initially assumed. But while much of the tension derives from watching two naive and poorly organised burglars suffer grievous bodily harm, Home Alone also draws much of its power from the genuinely terrifying, high-stakes scenario it sets up and essentially threatens to realise throughout: the person left to deal with the two intruders is only a small child.

The film also plays on parents’ fears of accidentally neglecting their children just as much as it does on kids’ fantasies of having the house all to themselves, free to eat tonnes of ice cream and make their way down the stairs on a sleigh.

Funny Games (1997)

Director: Michael Haneke

Funny Games (1997)

Austrian master Michael Haneke’s take on the subgenre (remade by Haneke himself in an American setting in 2007) is an extremely visceral watch, centring on an Austrian family being terrorised in their lakeside home by two young intruders. As is usually the case in his films, however, the violence in Funny Games is far from random and emanates instead from a highly critical view of bourgeois hypocrisy. More famously, the film toys with ideas of audience participation in on-screen brutality, drawing an unfortunate and reactionary correlation between cinematic and real-world violence.

Still, in choosing a home invasion scenario to make this (very silly) point, Haneke did get one thing right: what makes the idea of strangers with bad intentions entering your house so potent is that practically everyone can imagine it happening to them too.

Panic Room (2002)

Director: David Fincher

Panic Room (2002)

This taut thriller from David Fincher is less interested in psychological complexity than it is in technical prowess – on the part of both the filmmaker and the characters themselves. As his camera snakes its way through the New York brownstone where a divorcée (Jodie Foster) and her daughter are menaced by intruders, his usual cold and controlled tone fits both the scheming minds of the burglars and the family hiding out in the apartment’s high-tech ‘panic room’. Rather than any real attempts at psychological bargaining, the two sets of characters deal in tactical manoeuvres designed to neutralise their opponent. However, the actors – chief among them Forest Whitaker – do eventually manage to inject a few drops of humanity into this well-oiled machine, and we come to feel for some of the people on both sides of the reinforced steel wall.

Although Panic Room’s conclusion feels rather unsatisfactory, Fincher’s film remains a suspenseful and technically impressive achievement.

High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance, 2003)

Director: Alexandre Aja

Switchblade Romance (2003)

So delightfully entertaining it would no doubt make Michael Haneke very upset, this French slasher takes its cue from American cinema, discarding the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic of much local horror at the time in favour of a slick, commercial look. In a remote countryside house, two beautiful and sexually liberated young women find themselves hunted down by an imposing truck driver. References to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the cinema of Wes Craven abound, but High Tension’s fast-paced action and inventive storytelling keep the film from getting mired in metatextual horseplay.

Them (2006)

Directors: David Moreau and Xavier Palud

Them (2006)

Stripping the home invasion film down to its bare essentials, this New French Extremity title turns the scenario into an almost existential experience. The plot is simple: a young couple move into a big country house, where they soon are taunted by silent, masked intruders. The audience, like the central characters, are put on high alert for a visceral ‘us versus them’ power struggle, the film eschewing all particulars to better sustain moment-to-moment terror and awaken primal reflexes of misanthropic paranoia. Rather than getting away through careful planning and elaborate traps, the couple only ever make it out by the skin of their teeth, and the film’s dark and lo-fi aesthetic eerily echoes their lack of resources and unpreparedness.

Inside (2007)

Directors: Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury

Inside (2007)

This New French Extremity entry is perhaps the most terrifying and upsetting film listed here. The premise alone is enough to make you flinch: Béatrice Dalle plays an unnamed woman intent on entering the house of young widow Sarah (Alysson Paradis) to take her baby – from inside her womb. The sense of personal transgression that makes a home invasion scenario so uncomfortable is thus made painfully literal, as a trespassing of the flesh.

Directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury maintain a disturbingly composed perspective throughout, the camera unflinchingly surveying the unfolding events with a calm detachment that offers no relief from the tension and gore. Achieving a fever pitch of intensity and alarming dread, Inside is a full-body experience.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Director: Chris Peckover

Better Watch Out (2016)

This underrated horror film belongs to the sometimes tiresome recent trend of knowing, self-aware slashers playing on genre tropes and expectations for an audience not inclined to suspend their disbelief for too long. Unlike many of its contemporaries, however, Better Watch Out is genuinely surprising and furiously entertaining, beginning as a reasonably spooky babysitter-in-distress film only to then considerably up the ante in terms of disturbing twists and graphic gore.

It wears its influences on its sleeve, but does more with them than simply wink at the audience: one scene, for example, has a character wonder what it would really be like if someone’s head got hit by a paint can, as happens in Home Alone. Needless to say, the result isn’t pretty.


Cruel Flesh: Films of the New French Extremity, including screenings of High Tension, Them and Inside, runs at BFI Southbank throughout May.