THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT
It’s been ten years since Writer/Director, Bryan Bertino first invaded our homes with his slow burn Horror/Thriller masterpiece, “The Strangers”. The film centered around a couple staying at a remote house while dealing with the fallout of a relationship conundrum. Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) were both somewhat on the sullen and reserved side but likable all the same. They were a real couple dealing with real problems, completely unawares of the danger that would arrive at their doorstep in the middle of the night in the form of The Strangers, a trio of mask wearing psychopaths by the name of Dollface, Pin Up Girl and Man In The Mask. Bertino’s script was more about what you didn’t see, and the film’s subsequent success grew because he chose to focus the attention specifically on the antagonists slowly and methodically driving the young couple insane, rather than giving horror audiences that typical visceral relief they’re so used to seeing. Filmmaker, Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) directs the 2018 sequel from a screenplay written by Ben Ketai (The Forest) where The Strangers: Prey At Night follows a family of four, made up of mother and father Cindy and Mike (played by Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) and their teenage kids, Kinsey and Luke (Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman) who end up staying at a secluded mobile home park for the night when they’re suddenly set upon by The Strangers: Dollface, Pin Up Girl and Man In The Mask.
Well it’s obvious isn’t it? First and foremost, I think fans (myself included) are happy and relieved to finally see the sequel come to fruition. In the years that followed after the original, there was a lot of talk about a sequel that would perhaps see Liv Tyler reprise her role of Kristen in some way shape or form. For whatever reason, those involved continually just kept running into brick walls and it never saw the light of day. Those of us fans who were maybe a little too invested, even sought out the screenplay that was in the works at that time. One minute it was green lit and then just like that it wasn’t, and that when on for years until just recently when Johannes Roberts super impressive successful shark film, “47 Meters Down” took the box office by storm. From a modest budget of just over 5 million, the film went on to gross over 40 million worldwide. It was from that moment on that the studios felt comfortable about handing The Strangers reigns over to Roberts. The Prey At Night 80’s style poster art is a definite improvement on the original and the film itself comes better late than never and ultimately by a filmmaker I quite like. There’s no doubt that Johannes instructed DP, Ryan Samul (cinematographer on great films like Cold in July and Stake Land) to go with certain 80’s visual cues. It’s a competently shot film, though there’s not a lot of diversity in shot types and certainly nothing that pushes the envelope. In fact, I think most of the atmosphere that is created comes down to the park location and the production management for lacing the air with a constant fog (just one of the many Carpenter esq traits). Compliments to the sound department for doing some interesting things with fades and muffled dialogue when the film reaches its tipping point.
From a performance standpoint Bailee Madison is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest. You remember her right? The not so little girl anymore from “Brothers” and “Just Go With It”. Madison started acting at seven years of age, and she not long ago turned eighteen. Those early years of experience show in her amped up emotional front of Kinsey in Prey At Night. While I didn’t love the convenient flip of the switch in regards to her completely changing her demeanour towards the family before the first act even finished, I get it as far as the need to make her character inherently more watchable and backable. I suppose it could be passed off as just teenage angst and the fact that young people are temperamental and rebellious at the best of times. The most natural interactions in the film occur between Kinsey and her brother Luke (Pullman). If you can ignore the references to Luke and college, meaning he’d have to be a graduating high schooler, something that’s certainly stretching the credibility for a 24-year-old Lewis in that role, his performance is actually pretty decent. I have no doubt slasher fans will more than welcome the revenge element, something that was absent in Bertino’s original film. I enjoyed watching the family fight back and even though not all of it works, Robert’s willingness to divert with a different tone is at the very least tempting. The best set piece involves a showdown between Luke and The Man In The Mask in an around the motel pool. Prey At Night cites itself as much more of a faster paced, old school horror film so you can expect to see more practical blood and gore than you did in the 08′ film. The effects look solid and a couple of the kills are quite violent and may even catch you off guard.
So has everyone noticed the 80’s nostalgia craze that’s going on right now? Don’t get me wrong I dig the 80’s (being a product of 86′), I love the music and most of the aesthetics of the era but I feel like ever since “Stranger Things”, it’s the new formula upon which filmmakers cash in on because they think it’s the ingredient that makes a successful genre film or TV show. Exhibit A, Johannes Roberts and Prey At Night. There’s a couple of painfully obvious examples of cashing in on the part of Roberts. The first being his obsession with continuously using those long lens zooms (you know the ones) regardless of whether the scene or shot choice warrants it. There’s a number of momentary lapses in focus in the steadicam photography while often tracking characters moving through the trailer park homes. I tried not to read too many details about the film prior, though I couldn’t help but hear complaints about the films score and how much Adrian Johnston (credited for music) was influenced by and riffed on John Carpenter’s previously established synth work. I’m genuinely surprised because music is usually one of the first things I notice and I didn’t think any of the compositions in here were even remotely memorable, let alone struck that nostalgic chord us fans yearn for. Who would have thought that 80’s pop tracks like “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” from Bonnie Tyler and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany would actually misfire? Oh yeah, that’s right, I did. I’m all for energetic synth and tapping into a particular market, but the song choices were dreadful and constantly clashed with the content displayed in each of those respective scenes, so much so that it was unintentionally funny.
I didn’t necessarily expect any real in-depth exposition in Prey At Night, but saying that, none of the characters really have much life. Lifelessness is at its roughest during a poorly acted, sub-par interaction between Mike and The Man In The Mask which ran twice as long as it should have. I’ve seen Henderson in a few films and he hasn’t been too bad, but unfortunately Prey At Night is something he’ll want to forget as quickly as possible. It’s not just that the stalk, scream and slash interplay between The Strangers and the family is on rinse and repeat for most of the films runtime, it’s that on more than one occasion it simply wears out its welcome by extending average scenes. There’s only so many times an audience can watch virtually the same sequence take place before they ultimately lose interest. If screenwriter, Ben Ketai approached multiple chase sequences with a different tempo and atmosphere in mind, the film could’ve actually been frightening and maybe even rivaled the original suspense, but alas. Where’s the stealthy creeping around trying not to make a sound? Where’s the hiding and finding etc? It’s just all screaming and these characters doing their absolute best to make sure the trio know exactly where they are at any given moment. Man In The Mask and Mike sitting in the truck is just one obvious example of an action sequence that never ends. The hardest pill to swallow with this highly anticipated sequel is how little respect Roberts and Ketai have for their audience regarding the credibility. These are mind-numbingly stupid characters (something Johannes girls in 47 Meters Down weren’t) and given Tyler and Speedman’s characters in the original Strangers made mostly sound decisions, it’s only further highlighted how dumb these people really are. Where to start: There’s lazy continuity issues from word go. After Kinsey and Luke stumble upon a gruesome scene they attempt to find their way back to their cabin, depicted with a jarring cut that sees them walk about 50 metres over a hill where they run into their folks right by the family trailer. Moments later, Mike asks Luke to take him back to where he found the bodies, asking if he could find his way back there? It was literally around the corner Mike, C’mon. The glaringly obvious one involves a police officer with his back to one of the killers while talking to Kinsey (who can quite obviously see over the mans shoulder) yet does absolutely nothing to warn him about the knife coming towards his throat, Well done Kinsey, you were less than useless love! MORE SPOILERS AHEAD.
Okay, so first you have to except that no one else (minus the first characters on-screen) resides in this rather large trailer park and yet our masked family chose that location to wait and hopefully get lucky. Secondly, if there’s one thing we know about teenagers it’s that they love their phones (hell most of us love em’), yet both Kinsey and Luke leave the trailer without their cells (so to the parents) only to return to find them smashed and rendered useless. There’s other avenues that can still drive the story forward Ben, just saying. Following a violent outburst by Dollface whose made it clear she means business, young Luke has the opportunity to shoot her at point-blank range, Does he do it? No! of course he doesn’t, that’d be stupid because then you’d have no movie (only you would). Instead he slowly backs away, opting to retreat to safety. Fair enough, but then he proceeds to place the gun down behind him while attending to his sister, needless to say he loses said weapon when the killer’s truck comes barreling into the trailer and they’re back to square one. Kinsey doesn’t notice the truck lights blaring at her from side on as she waits to be crashed into *rolls eyes*. The climax is where things really go pair-shaped though. We know that the killer always comes back right? It’s a given, a cornerstone horror movie trope if you will, and most of the time we like it despite how implausible it may be but where do you draw the line? I can accept it if there’s a supernatural element but The Strangers are just people, that’s fact. Picture this. Your vehicle’s busted and on fire, you’re roasting away inside yet you’re able to continue driving. You get out to make your final move on a hapless victim while simultaneously removing a sizeable chunk of glass from your abdomen and you finally collapse. That’s it, right? Wrong. The Man In The Mask attacks yet again several minutes later, lunging at Kinsey with an axe in what can only be described as a scene lifted straight out of Tobe Hooper’s iconic, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Hysterically crying girl in the back up of a pickup an all, just interchange pillowcase for Leatherface and the axe for a chainsaw and you’ve got the same damn thing.
It’s been ten years since “The Strangers” and that’s a long damn time to sit and stew and think about what a sequel might entail. I think I speak for all of us when I say we’re glad it’s finally arrived, I just wish the crux of it was better than the packaging. It’s a mostly well shot film despite an over abundance of zooming, the sound is sharp and the location does work well. Both Madison and Pullman deliver pretty good performances and there’s some nice looking practical effects work and plenty of action in the second half of the film. The family fighting back made for a welcomed addition even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Johannes’s 180 degree turn into slasher territory. This love affair with the 80’s is cool an everything, but only if it’s coming from an honest place and not just what the marketing team thinks will sell tickets. The synth score is rather lack-luster, the characters are hard to invest in and so many scenes are void of any real tension because they’re on the same cycle. There’s a number of poor continuity issues and the characters almost always make painfully dumb decisions and it makes sticking with them for the long haul rather tedious. The script specifics and dialogue needed a lot more work and the slasher component includes cringeworthy build ups to the deaths and ultimately it reaches farcical status in the final act. I wanted the bulk of the critics to be wrong on this one and as much as I tried really hard to like it, I just didn’t. Hell, maybe it’s those ten years in between films that wised me up, but either way it wasn’t for me. If you’re a product of the 80’s and new wave slashers you might be able to separate these two films and enjoy Prey At Night a lot more than I did. I think I’ll stick with Bertino’s 08′ film.
My rating for “The Strangers: Prey At Night” is 4.5/10