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Home invasion has been a part of horror movies practically from the beginning. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Dracula, and Frankenstein (1931) all included moments of attackers entering homes uninvited and terrorizing unsuspecting victims.

Home invasion as a sub-genre unto itself came a bit later, as the suburbs sprung up and a false sense of security rose in the United States along with fears of “the other” that have always been a key aspect of horror movies.

These ten movies may not all be the best of this sub-genre, but they all bring something different to the table and pushed it, in large and small ways, in new directions.

The Desperate Hours (1955)

It is practically impossible to pinpoint the exact moment that started any new genre or movement within film but a good candidate for the foundation of the home invasion movie is William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours. The opening scenes look like an episode of Leave It to Beaver with Daniel (Frederic March) and Ellie (Martha Clark) as the heads of the idyllic suburban Hilliard family. While Daniel and their eldest daughter are at work and the young son is at school, three fugitive criminals led by Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) hold Ellie at gunpoint and force their way into her home where they plan to stay until they are able to make their next move. When Daniel and the children return home, Griffin holds the whole family hostage, making demands of them for their getaway, but the Hilliards each work to outsmart and escape their captors without endangering their family members in the process.

Though it falls in the nebulous “thriller” category that sits at various places on the edges of horror, The Desperate Hours sets much of the template for the home invasion film to come including themes of class and the randomness of fate.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

Home Invasion Horror Wait Until Dark

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) marked a major shift in horror away from monsters, giant bugs, and space invaders toward psychologically grounded thrillers. One of the best of these is Wait Until Dark, based on the successful Broadway play by Frederick Knott and directed by Terence Young, best known for helming three early James Bond features. Most of the film takes place in a small New York apartment which lends to its sense of confinement and mounting dread. On his way home to New York from Montreal a woman convinces Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), a random man she met on the plane, to take a doll home for her. Now a group of criminals want that doll and, more importantly, the heroin stuffed inside it. While Sam is away, the only thing standing in their way of searching his apartment for the doll is Sam’s wife, Susy (Audrey Hepburn) who happens to be blind. The criminals gain her trust by taking on various personas, but as the story unfolds Susy becomes more and more suspicious and begins working, with the help of her precocious young neighbor Gloria, to foil their plans.

Featuring iconic performances by Hepburn and Alan Arkin as the psychotic Harry Roat, equally excellent turns by Richard Crenna and Jack Weston, a sequence that takes place almost entirely in the dark with only sound effects to indicate the unseen action, and one of the greatest jump scares in film history, Wait Until Dark remains one of the best thrillers of the 1960s.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

For some, including this film may be stretching the definition of home invasion, but I believe it is worthy of discussion in the sub-genre and decisively moves it from the thriller category squarely into horror. After Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) are tortured, raped, and murdered by a gang of thugs, led by Krug Stillo (David Hess), the gang seeks refuge in a nearby house and are welcomed in by the homeowners. These turn out to be Mari’s parent’s who take matters into their own hands when they discover who Krug and company actually are and what they have done. Though the Collingwoods invite the gang into their home, they recognize the danger and fight against it, as is the case in most home invasion films, but there is also the added dimension of revenge for the brutal death of their daughter.

Where The Virgin Spring (1960), on which the film was based, is largely a meditation on religious belief, morality, and redemption, Last House deals primarily in the limits of morality in polite society and how much that morality can be violated in defense of one’s own territory, in this case the home. It is also an open attempt to depict the ugliness of violence, which had been so sanitized in movies and other media up to that point. The film has its flaws, particularly its wild swings in tone, but there is no denying the visceral punch that Wes Craven’s debut feature still holds. To this day it leaves many still repeating “It’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie.”

Death Game (1977)

On a rainy night while his wife and kids are away, two young women, Jackson (Sondra Locke) and Donna (Colleen Camp), show up on George Manning’s (Seymour Cassel) doorstep asking to use his phone. They claim to be headed for a party but got lost along the way. He invites them to stay and dry off until a friend of theirs arrives to pick them up, but the girls seduce George and he, reluctantly at first, joins them in a tryst in the Jacuzzi. In the morning, he regrets his actions, but they refuse to leave. It soon becomes clear than Jackson and Donna have drawn Geroge into a trap that could ruin, or even end, his life. Or is it all just a joke?

Death Game is innovative to the genre for several reasons. Perhaps chief among them is that the home invaders are women and, more importantly, they torment George just for the fun of it. They aren’t looking for refuge, money, revenge, or some kind of MacGuffin, they are just in it for kicks. Death Game was little seen for decades, but in 2015 Eli Roth remade the film as Knock Knock partially to draw attention to the original. It worked as the film has been fully restored and is more widely seen now than ever before.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

Few films of the 80s fall squarely under the home invasion umbrella. That said, elements could be found in ghost movies like Poltergeist and The Entity (1982) and certainly many, if not most, slashers, but it was the 90s that saw a new wave of the home invasion sub-genre. Once again, many of these fell under the category of thriller rather than straight horror but that does not mean they are not tense and terrifying. These films trended toward stories of people inviting strangers into their lives that appear trustworthy or innocuous, often because of their occupation or station in life, but turn out to be major threats. Films like Pacific Heights (1990), Unlawful Entry (1992), Single White Female (1992), and The Crush (1993) all exemplify this type of “life invasion” thriller, but perhaps most relevant to this discussion, because it largely centers around a domestic home and family, is The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is in need of a nanny for her newborn when she meets a woman, identifying herself as Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay), who just happens to be looking for a position as a nanny. What Claire does not know, but the audience does, is that Peyton is really Mrs. Mott, the widow of the doctor who killed himself after a group of women, starting with Claire, reported that they had been sexually assaulted by him during medical examinations. As the result of stress from the situation and a fall, Mrs. Mott loses her own baby to miscarriage. “Peyton” works her way into the lives of the members of the Bartel family to poison it from the inside and carry out her revenge. Her goal is not just to kill Claire but take her place as the family matriarch. Directed by Curtis Hanson and with supporting performances by Ernie Hudson and Julianne Moore, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle still packs a punch as a nightmare situation for any family with young children.

Funny Games (1997)

To some Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a masterpiece. To others it is the epitome of offensive trash. But love it or hate it, it is practically impossible to be ambivalent about it. “I provoke in order to provoke an insight” said Haneke in a 2017 interview, and for those willing to look for it, they will find it. In the film, a couple and their young son have just arrived at their vacation home when two young men enter under the auspices of borrowing some eggs for the neighbors. They soon begin to torment the family by playing a series of what they consider to be funny games. This setup may sound typical, but the film is most assuredly not.

Funny Games specializes in establishing expectations through stereotypes and clichés, then subverting them to make its points. Haneke purposely breaks rules and crosses lines to draw attention to the manipulative power of the medium of film itself. In the same interview mentioned above, Haneke insists that “Funny Games is definitely not a genre film.” He considers it a kind of Trojan Horse that shows an audience “how easily they are manipulated.” The film uses a series of devices, including characters breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience, to implicate the viewer in the violence and torment they are being shown, practically daring viewers to be entertained by the film. In essence, we are being forced to play the game but only Haneke knows the rules, and he can change them whenever he wants. But then, it’s only a movie…right?

Inside (2007)

The French Extremity movement of the 2000s often played in the home invasion sandbox, but never as viciously as in Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside (À l’intérieur). On Christmas Eve, four months after her husband was killed in a car accident, expectant mother Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is spending one last quiet evening at home before being induced the next morning. But her silent night is shattered when a woman (Béatrice Dalle) enters and, armed with a large pair of scissors, tries to steal Sarah’s baby from her womb.

With undercurrents dealing with class and privilege, Inside is a bleak, tightly-paced, and relentless 83 minutes. It also easily places among the bloodiest movies ever made—nothing says Merry Christmas like watching a person give themself a tracheotomy with a knitting needle.

The Strangers (2008)

If you asked people today to name a home invasion movie, chances are they’d say The Strangers. In it, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) return home from a rough night to try to patch things up. They are interrupted by a knock at their door and a young woman asking, “is Tamara home?” Assuming she is drunk, stoned, or just confused, they politely say no, close the door and move on with their evening. Part of the effectiveness of the film is that it begins as a rather bland relationship drama and slowly builds in intensity to fever pitch as the couple is terrorized by a trio of masked assailants. It all leads up to the most iconic motive of any home invasion movie—“Because you were home.”

Perhaps even more chilling is a line one of the assailants says as they drive off in their truck, “it’ll be easier next time.” With these lines and more, The Strangers deals in nihilism and the randomness of life and death in ways that few modern American movies do. It spawned a sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night in 2018 and, assuming all goes to plan, a trio of films directed by Renny Harlin that will be released throughout this year beginning with The Strangers: Chapter 1 on May 17, 2024.

The Purge (2013)

Most home invasion movies have political undercurrents, but The Purge places matters of race, class, violence, and governmental manipulation front and center. During the annual Purge, a 12-hour period in which all crime is legal, the well-to-do Sandin family has locked themselves into their fortified home for the night. When the precocious son Charlie (Max Burkholder) takes compassion on a wounded man (Edwin Hodge) and lets him in, a group of masked assailants demanding he be returned to them threaten to break into the home. All hell breaks loose when father and mother, James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey), and the family choose to fight against the gang rather than give into their demands.

The Purge spawned four more films and a television series which have continued to mine the political elements of the first film and expand upon them. Overtly political media can often be a risky venture in these divided times, but in the case of The Purge it has paid off, making it one of the foundational films for the success of Blumhouse that continues to this day.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Don't Breathe Review

Fede Álvarez’s follow-up to Evil Dead (2013) left the supernatural behind in favor of the reality-bound home invasion thriller Don’t Breathe, which proved to be no less relentless and disturbing than its predecessor. A trio of young burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto) break into the home of a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) expecting to easily get away with one last big score. The Blind Man quickly turns out to be much more than they bargained for and, as his motivations are slowly revealed, they prove to be increasingly sinister.

Like many of the films discussed here, the setup is simple, but Don’t Breathe twists and turns its way to unexpected places, many of which are shocking and disturbing.

Many other films could be discussed including Deadly Games (1989), Panic Room (2002), Hard Candy (2005), Martyrs (2008), Kidnapped (2010), You’re Next (2011), Hush (2016), Hosts (2020), and more. The invasion of the safe spaces in peoples’ lives remains, and likely always will be, a primal fear. I have no doubt that horror and thriller filmmakers will continue to exploit that fear for a long time to come and in increasingly terrifying and innovative ways.

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