Home (Not) Alone: 10 Terrifying Home Invasion Thrillers

Harry and Marv don't exactly make the cut here.


In anticipation of this weekend’s home invasion thriller No Good Deed, starring Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson, we decided to count down our top 10 entries in the genre in chronological order. But before we present the list, let’s briefly expand on the genre itself. First off, we’re defining a home invasion as an attack on one or more individuals in a private space, be it a house, a vacation home, or a houseboat. The attack must comprise at least one full act of the film, which helps differentiate legitimate entries into the genre from films like A Clockwork Orange, which feature brief invasion scenes but don’t really belong in the canon. Finally, all the players must be human beings, not monsters, ghosts, or unstoppable killing machines named Michael Myers. This prevents us from blurring the lines between home invasion films and straight-up monster movies.

10. Anything that isn’t part of the New French Extremity trend

You have friends who will tell you to watch Inside (À l’intérieur), the tale of a psychotic woman infiltrating a pregnant woman’s home in the hopes of slicing and yanking the baby out of her body with a pair of scissors. Your friends suck. It’s gore-porn lacking in tension, but with plenty of pretension to spare, and even the most obliging of Fangoria bloodhounds will know that the movie is shitting in their mouths and calling it a clafoutis. Not as bad, but still not good, is Them (ils), where a couple’s home is plagued by prankster preteens, and whose interesting qualities stem from the Romanian part of its French-Romanian production.

But what about High Tension (Haute Tension), you say? Well, the opening home invasion aspect is awesome (that head smashed by the dresser drawer? Righteous!), but that implausible faux Fight Club ending is such a dick-over that it wrecks everything that came before it. And don’t even get me started on Martyrs. Dear New French Extremity, you’ve mastered the perfect tints of fake blood, and your exploding heads and gutted entrails would make Tom Savini proud. But please, please, please, stop pretending to make it deep. A pulper is a just a pulper in any language. –Roy Ivy

9. You’re Next (2011)

With You’re Next, director Adam Wingard — a member of horror’s low-budget mumblegore movement — has given us one of the first truly postmodern home invasion thrillers. The film starts off like any other genre exercise, with a group of intruders slowly picking off the members of a family one by one. But then it quickly reverses course and begins dashing all your expectations. The first major twist happens when the intruders themselves become the victims, as one of the family’s houseguests — a woman, no less — begins using her expert survivalist skills to kill ’em off singlehandedly. In another twist (spoiler alert), the intruders aren’t strangers at all; they’re hitmen commissioned by members of the family. It’s with this last corker that You’re Next redefines the genre. It’s no longer a battle between the private and the public or the familiar and the strange. The threat is now coming from within.–Adriane Neuenschwander

8. Sleep Tight (2011)

I was a fan of Jaume Balaguero’s [REC], but nothing about that found footage horror movie made me think he had this patient, classy slow-burn of a gut-wrenching thriller in him. César, beautifully underplayed by Luis Tosar, is the seemingly friendly concierge of a posh apartment complex in Barcelona. He looks like the sad-sack son of Elias Koteas and Todd Barry, but there’s a kindness in his dark eyes that makes you root for him. Then you find out he spends his nights creeping into the apartment of the effervescent Clara, chloroforming the pretty lady as she sleeps, tainting her cosmetics with rash-inducting fluids, and, well, impregnating her too. His motivation: He just wants to wipe that goddamn smile off her face. Lusciously shot and amazingly tasteful considering César’s evil deeds, Sleep Tight is an invasion thriller from the invader’s point of view. He doesn’t just invade the home, he invades the soul and the ovaries. He’s an unsympathetic monster that you sympathize with anyway, and every time he’s seconds away from getting caught, you wonder why you’re biting your nails. –Roy Ivy

7. The Strangers (2008)

Another couple, another vacation house in the middle of nowhere. This movie would be just another tired retread if it wasn’t so damn effective. It maintains an eerie, disquieting tone throughout, but what really makes it work is those creepy-as-shit masks. Their ghostly, emotionless faces flit in and out of the film’s shadows, as if the intruders are omnipresent. There is no escape from their random attack. There’s nothing particularly heady about this film; it strikes audiences on a purely physiological level. When I first saw it in the theater, the woman next to me got so startled she jumped out of her seat and landed in my lap. There’s something to be said about a movie that’s creepy enough to inspire a reaction like that. –Adriane Neuenschwander

6. When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)

“The killer is calling from inside the house.” Yeah, yeah, we know. Once the cat was out of the bag about the big reveal in 1979’s When a Stranger Calls, a genuine, original moment of cinematic terror became a national cliché. Nobody asked for a made-for-cable sequel to the babysitter-in-peril classic, but 14 years later, they did it anyway. And it is a doozy. The first 30 minutes alone are worth investing in adult diapers, as a new babysitter endures the relentless knocking on the door of a new stranger who just wants to use the phone. But this babysitter’s no dummy. She’s not unlocking the door for nobody. I’ll ruin it for you: The kids are already dead. And the killer? Imagine Jeff Dunham with talent. Like its predecessor, When a Stranger Calls Back is saddled by a snoozer of a police procedural second act, but that ending is a home run. And the invader becomes the home. –Roy Ivy

5. Cape Fear (1991)

It may seem like a stretch to call Scorsese’s Cape Fear a home invasion thriller, but it’s actually a double-dipper. That sum-bitch Max Cady doesn’t just breach Nick Nolte’s fancy house, killing the family dog and leaving Jessica Lange slithering in Joe Don Baker’s blood. He also goes and marauds their houseboat, too. The gruesome adventures of a Bible-thumpin’ rapist/murderer stalking the lawyer that put him in the clink for 14 years is a tale worth telling twice, and the 1991 remake of Cape Fear is 128 minutes of coked-up paranoia that’s just as good, if not better, than the 1962 original (although Mitchum as Cady was way, way cooler and way better dressed). And Scorsese’s climatic houseboat invasion, where seasick camerawork captures a handcuffed and emasculated Nolte being forced to watch as Cady tries to double-dip his wife and daughter, dares you not to vomit. It’s a blast. –Roy Ivy

4. Last House on the Left (1972)

Even though it was his first time in the director’s chair, Last House on the Left remains one of Wes Craven’s most visceral and disturbing films. Shot in a gritty, hyper-realistic style that only heightens its wince factor, the movie tells the story of four escaped cons who rape, torture, and kill two teenage girls. Afterwards they decide to seek refuge at a nearby house, not knowing that it’s owned by the parents of one of the teens. In a twist on the usual home invasion conventions, the homeowners let the quartet in willingly. It’s only after they discover that their new houseguests murdered their daughter that the tropes we’ve come to expect from the genre kick into overdrive, as the formerly peace-loving couple begin defending their home and avenging their family in some of the most brutal ways possible — including one of film’s only fatal acts of fellatio. Upon its release, the film divided audiences, provoking repulsion and admiration for its unflinching violence in equal measure. Decades later, it’s still one of the best films you’ll never want to watch a second time. –Adriane Neuenschwander

3. Straw Dogs (1971)

Most fans of the home invasion genre know that shit’s going down anytime a couple goes to their rural vacation home for some solitude. And we can all thank Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs for being one of the first films to teach us this valuable lesson. As with Desperate Hours, Peckinpah uses the genre to explore the state of modern-day masculinity. The film follows wimpy mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his wife Amy (Susan George) as they attempt to settle into a desolate house in a small English village. They’re soon targeted by a group of local hooligans, who kill the couple’s cat and gang rape Amy. Eventually, the thugs attempt to break into the couple’s home. It’s this final transgression that sets David off, transforming him from a pushover dweeb into a hyper-macho ball of rage, one capable of scalding a man’s face with boiling water and crushing another in a giant, spring-loaded snare. –Adriane Neuenschwander

2. Wait Until Dark (1967)

Though families and couples are by far the most common victims in home invasion movies, there’s a small subset of the genre that pits the villains against one lone woman. Not only is Wait Until Dark one of the first examples of this trend, it also preemptively one-ups every film that follows it by making that woman, Susy, both blind and the beloved actress Audrey Hepburn. This film smartly plays on viewers’ expectations about femininity at a time when that concept was in the midst of a historical shift. You’d assume that a blind waif would be helpless when confronted by three burly intruders, but Wait Until Dark subverts those expectations. By busting out a light and forcing her attackers into the same darkness she inhabits, Susy gains the upper hand and starts kicking ass (or at least as much ass as a 95-pound person can kick). –Adriane Neuenschwander

1. The Desperate Hours (1955)

The setup is brisk. Meet the house (it’s the same house from Leave It to Beaver). Meet the Cleavers (wholesome mom, ripe teenage daughter, the precocious Beaver, and dad as “The Pussy”). Meet the home invasion thriller archetypes who just broke outta the big house and begin to hijack and terrorize the Cleaver home as they await getaway money. The brains: a stubbly, surly Bogart. The brawn: a big, mean lug played by a monobrow with gigantism. The sensitive one: he don’t wanna hurt nobody. And that’s all within the first five minutes. If you think you know how the rest is gonna play out, you’re right. The milquetoast dad who says, “We don’t keep a gun in this house” will eventually man up when he’s pushed too far.

But there’s joy in seeing these tropes born in William Wyler’s sharp-focus Vistavision detonation of ’50s white suburban safety. Cherry on top: a weird moment where Bogart contemplates suicide by cop. It’s the Beatles of home invasion thrillers, setting the template for decades to come, and if you’re in the “I love rock and roll, but hate the Beatles” camp, skip The Desperate Hours on your way to hell. –Roy Ivy

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