2018 | rated R | starring Bailee Madison, Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Lewis Pullman | directed by Johannes Roberts | 1hr 25mins |
Studio Pitch: Why don’t we just make that Strangers sequel we talked about 10 years ago.
In 2008, a quiet little home invasion movie The Strangers became a surprise modest hit. It’s take on the Manson family murders slimmed down to near symbolic simplicity captured the horror zeitgeist right at the dawn of the French New Wave Horror movement (especially the similar Ills) and in a post-Saw world where audiences craved a little more old-fashioned suspense with their gore. The Strangers – theoretically – finds that balance between Halloween-esque atmospheric suspense and merciless violence. But as executed the movie was also pretty deflated, has an endless wind-up and is populated with paper-thin characters.
A whopping 10 years later, here comes a Strangers sequel, subtitled Prey at Night, with a new coat of paint fitting the zeitgeist of 2018: 80s nostalgia. From it’s opening title and spashing 80s score, director Johannes Roberts announces right off the bat that his take on the series would be to turn The Strangers into the umpteenth John Carpenter homage of the last few years. If it hadn’t been done so often before, it would be a clever idea. It’s a perfect fit for these villains and definitely adds some fuel to the proceedings.
Prey at Night is a superior sequel in almost every way. Roberts seems to not really care for The Strangers , abandoning the home invasion format for a more traditional slasher film and generally treating the project like an audition for another movie. It’s a busier movie than the first film, it’s characters are even more obvious cliches, assembled to squabble with each other but they’re welcome replacements for the dead air of the last go round. It picks up with a family of four led by mom (Christina Hendricks) and dad (Martin Henderson, remember that dude from The Ring) packing up on a road trip with son Luke (Lewis Pullman) to take their juvenile delinquent daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school, but also stopping to see their grandparents in a vacation trailer camp ground they own. Its a script clash a bit like in A Good Day to Die Hard how John McClane is stupidly both on vacation and a quest to find his son. But it’s forgiven because introducing a juvenile delinquent and putting her up against some juvenile delinquents that are a real, serious threat is an ingeniously poetic layer.
Things then play out exactly as you’d expect between the movie’s biggest name (Hendricks), it’s likable son and it’s tough heroine who seems built for the situation she finds herself in. The 3 strangers appear in their creepy masks and start terrorizing the family as they run from trailer to trailer in the completely empty and fog-covered park. It’s here where the Carpenter homage fits so well. Prey at Night unabashedly in a pre-Scream time where these characters can get away with one clueless decision after another. The script is terrible, everyone gets to yell “leave us alone” or “Why are you doing this?” a few times and there are tropes like fly-buzzing bodies to find and hapless cops to roll on the scene. Hendricks and Henderson look like they’re acting, it’s that strained. There is so much crying and screaming it begs the audience to want them dead.
What it does kind of maintain is the anarchist attitude that fuels these movies: the horror of soulless, random violence. That a group of young psychotics could pick a house and random and spend the night brutalizing it’s occupants is real and fundamentally unnerving. There are a few bits of fun here. It’s biggest accomplishment is what we’ll call The Pool Scene, which is a flat-out great horror set piece from start to finish. With “Total Eclipse of the Heart” cued up ironically one of our heroes finally makes a stand against the strangers after all the running and hiding and we get the full-on battle the entire movie has teased, a fight that spills into the park pool with the camera moving above and below the water. The scene is well set up and masterfully done.
The Strangers: Prey at Night even as the window tap “I’ve got your car keys” bit from Scream without the humor and personality. Before it’s over it’s gotten too thin, too obvious set-up/pay-off, too convenient and it’s villains too indestructible given that the whole point is that they could be anybody. Bare minimum effort was put into the basic fundamentals here. Like they were so pleased with the juvenile delinquent parallels they called it a day and ran the rest through the Script-o-matic 5000. It’s got morsels of good stuff here and there. When it comes to the actual set piece building business of horror it can be kind of fun even if it lacks the skilled simmering tension of the Carpenter movies it’s homaging.