Written by: Bryan Bertino, Ben Ketai
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, and Bailee Madison
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Let us prey.
Nearly a decade has passed since The Strangers bowed in theaters, essentially serving as the crescendo to the wave of nihilistic horror movies that largely defined the previous decade. Its grim burst of random, inexplicable violence captured the zeitgeist in a way that’s striking in retrospect; while Bryan Bertino’s film certainly preys on timeless, universal fears, it is truly a product of late-Bush-era angst, so much so that it’s weirdly appropriate that it’s gone without a sequel in the interim. Of course, that fact is equally astounding: after captivating audiences and critics alike, The Strangers lingered without a follow-up, even as its titular trio was poised to ascend to iconic status thanks to their enigmatic presence and their immediately indelible masks. You could easily imagine an alternate timeline where we’d be settling in to watch The Strangers 5 by now.
But instead, we’re in the timeline where The Strangers: Prey at Night is just now debuting after numerous false starts over the past decade, and it does so with that gap seemingly in mind. Rather than acting as a direct sequel, it’s more of a reconfiguring that transplants the original film’s sensibilities and iconography into a more straightforward slasher movie, albeit one that’s stylish and entertaining as hell. Maybe that’s anathema to the first film, but it feels like the best possible approach, particularly since director Johannes Roberts channels just enough of his predecessor’s steady-handed restraint in crafting this worthy follow-up.
Set some nebulous time after the events of the first film, Prey at Night finds a fresh set of targets in a family of four that’s headed on a rural trek to ship their daughter (Bailee Madison) off to boarding school (you can tell she’s rebellious because her wardrobe includes a Ramones tee, flannel, and headphones permanently fixed in her ears). Along the way, they intend to stop in a tourist trailer park owned by a couple of relatives; with the place now emptied for the off-season, the retreat might also be a chance for this frayed family to reconnect. Such illusions are quickly shattered, however, when a trio of masked lunatics intrude upon the park and stalk them, setting off a brutal, deadly struggle for survival.
From the moment Prey at Night opens with Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” blaring over a credits sequence that features the familiar John Carpenter font and a killer title logo that could have easily graced a clamshell VHS cover three decades ago, it’s pretty clear that this iteration of The Strangers isn’t obsessed with retracing its predecessor’s steps. And once the musical choice segues into a pulsing synth score that’s eerily similar to The Fog’s main theme, there’s no doubt: Prey at Night is looking back beyond The Strangers in an attempt to recapture the glory days of 80s horror—or at least faintly echo them, at any rate. Calling it a “throwback” is probably a step too far, but it’s certainly looking to coast on its target audience’s fondness for that era in a way that’s palpable.
For the most part, it works out, especially since Prey at Night is refreshingly different from The Strangers. Maybe everyone involved realized it’d be a fool’s errand to completely mimic Bertino’s minimal, chamber drama approach, so this sequel feels a little more buttoned-down and shaggy as it opens up its premise for a more indulgent take that boasts irony-laced needle-drops of 80s anthems and neon-splashed photography. Prey at Night isn't exactly a barrel of laughs—it’s still unrepentantly nasty and uncompromising—but it’s definitely less austere and stifling than the first movie, which unfolds under an almost ponderous, somber cloud as Scott Speedman stares vacantly and Liv Tyler cries a lot. And that’s fine—obviously, that approach also worked out by effectively making the film about them and having the audience genuinely invest in their plight in a manner few slasher movies bother to do.
Prey at Night is not that movie: while the main family isn’t completely disposable, you sense that Roberts is just itching to fuck them up. Sure, the script provides some obligatory moments where the family vents their frustrations and anxieties (mostly over the daughter’s vague transgressions), but they mostly feel perfunctory. This is a movie about killers wearing cool masks, and Roberts can’t resist their allure; in fact, this shift in dynamic is obvious from the beginning, when a prologue features the three strangers victimizing an elderly couple with their familiar routine. It’s right out of the slasher movie playbook, though you at least sense the director’s restraint in the decision to withhold the gory payoff to this encounter until later.
You feel Roberts straddling that line between restraint and splatter movie indulgence throughout the film. Prey At Night is undeniably more concerned with base slasher thrills, yet it doesn’t stray too far into complete, gore-soaked nonsense. If the original was carved in the image of Halloween, then this one is closer in spirit to Halloween 2: still of a piece with its predecessor but also looking to up the ante in terms of gore, scope, and scale. No longer confined to one house, The Strangers is now let loose into an entire trailer park, which represents the perfect amount of escalation for this premise, allowing for more elaborate set-pieces without completely sacrificing the original’s claustrophobia. Likewise, Roberts is careful to soak in the derelict atmosphere of these eerie surroundings: his camera lingers on a fog-drenched hole-in-the-wall that’s tucked away so remotely that it’s only accessible via a rickety one-lane bridge. A menacing forest looms in the distance, effectively trapping the family in a woodsy desolation that becomes increasingly suffocating as the mayhem unfolds.
Roberts is clearly engrossed by this relentlessly scripted mayhem: once Prey at Night revs up, it rarely slows down as it bounds from one gruesome encounter to the next, each of them punctuated by incongruent 80s pop, a choice that captures the film’s tendency to relish its premise. This take on The Strangers strives to deliver typical stalk-and-slash with all of the usual trimmings—like bloodshed and jolts (there are a handful of terrific jump scares)—but does so with an aloof sense of cool that invites the audience to revel in this ordeal, something the original largely resisted. Where that film dwells on unflinching acts of savagery and cruel, heartbreaking twists of fate, this one features an extended sequence where a would-be survivor struggles against an axe-wielding maniac in a pool with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blasting over loudspeakers. The Strangers is not the sort of movie that’s fun to revisit very often, while this one seems to have been crafted to coax some kind of excitement from viewers by dazzling them with slick photography and droning synth notes.
It goes without saying that I am squarely in the bag for that sort of thing, so Prey at Night’s charms often won me over. However, it’s worth noting (again) that Roberts doesn’t overdo it: there’s enough investment in the characters that it doesn’t become a completely empty killing spree, and the violence is still positively savage. Solid performances (notably from Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson as the parents) ensure that the bloodletting actually means something beyond the usual splatter spectacle, and each grisly slash and stab lands with gut-wrenching physicality. Despite that aloofness, you still feel the genuinely unpleasant violence on display—even as you’re sort of enraptured by how strangely thrilling this sequel is.
Ultimately, that desire to thrill does win out, as Prey at Night becomes demented—and somewhat ludicrous—game of cat and mouse that sees a lone survivor trading blows with these maniacal fiends. By this point, you’re compelled to yield to Roberts’s infectious enthusiasm for this genre: somewhere along the way, The Strangers becomes less preoccupied with its own legacy and more absorbed by a pop pastiche approach that sees Roberts stitching together familiar imagery from the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Christine—all underlined by that Carpenter and Goblin-inspired synth buzzing. Prey at Night is worthy of its various homages, if only because they coalesce into something indelible instead of degenerating into a hollow parade of winks and nods. Maybe this represents some kind of regression—this very much feels like The Strangers retreating to cozy, video store-era familiarity instead an exploring the original film’s milieu, but it (perhaps unwittingly) speaks to our rush to seek refuge in nostalgia, even when it involves butcher knives and axes.
Besides, Prey at Night is faithful to the original’s most important aspect: there’s no attempt to humanize or pull the curtain back on its title characters. We learn nothing about them, and I hope we never do—nor do I hope any potential sequel addresses the seemingly impossible final moment here. The strangers (and their motives) are as enigmatic as ever: after all this time, they’re still engaged in the same routines, right down to unscrewing porch light bulbs and asking if Tamara is home. Most pointedly, this film’s climactic bit of dialogue doubles down on the inexplicable horror that defined The Strangers: in that film, the violence was carried out simply because the ill-fated couple was home. Here, one of the masked maniacs only responds with “why not?” when confronted about the motives.
I like to think that dialogue doubles as the mantra for Prey at Night, a sequel that stares a decade’s worth of expectation and hype in the eyes and just goes for it, doing its damnedest to leave a mark. Even if it slashes a little bit more wildly and misses the razor sharp precision of the original film, it arguably cuts more deeply. Only time will tell, of course, but I’m already leaning towards this one being my favorite of the two.
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