Director: Johannes Roberts
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino, Ben Ketai
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman
Runtime: 85 Minutes
The Strangers is a 2008 horror film supposedly (not at all) based on true events whereby a couple are terrorised in their vacation home by three masked assailants, who proceed to invade their home, play unsettling music out loud and generally scare the crap out of the inhabitants before moving in for the kill. It was certainly a hit but received a mixed critical reception for using a simple and effective premise, but bottling the execution as far as character and pacing as concerned.
Nobody was asking for a follow-up, not even the few remaining ardent fans of it that might have seen it at an age where they were too young to be viewing it. But it clearly left enough of an impact for this sequel to be rolled out after sitting in development hell for more than a decade, and the result is actually one of the more surprisingly entertaining films – horror or otherwise – to be released this year given the lack of expectation that’s followed it to screen.
The strangely effective thing about The Strangers: Prey at Night is how it feels like a film that could only possibly work as a sequel. As in much of the legwork for establishing the killers, their motivations (or lack of), their methods and their utter ruthlessness have already been established for the audience before it’s even started. The fun to be had is watching the whole thing play through the routine again, but then taking it in a different direction that honestly feels like something that should have existed as the original film in the first place.
The main changeup to the film is the general approach to the material as written. Whereas the original was a throwback to the nasty exploitation pictures of the 1970’s, right down to the architecture of the house and the muted colour tone, Prey at Night is very much a send-up of the far more popular strata of horror and slasher movies. Though it plays heavy visual homage to works like Halloween, The Shining and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its visual spread and aesthetic follow in the spirit of 80s nostalgia trips.
From clothing items to musical cues, the film drips with the sound of the synthesiser heavy decade without much need for explanation despite taking place in the modern day – and it’s remarkable how much mileage director Johannes Roberts is able to get out of such a cheap trick. There’s something to be said about the response evoked by sound and image especially in horror movies, but it’s amazing how much an audience will be willing to forgive so long as the film is willing to have a good time with them.
The tone isn’t a total shift, if there’s a bigger issue to take with it over its generic foundations it’s that it could be having a better time taking advantage of its aesthetic, but it needs to keep some grounding with the original film. The themes of the original and the underpinning of that fear of the unknown and those killing without reason are still present but applied in a different way.
The returning figures of the unnamed ‘Strangers’ of the title remain as mysterious and threatening as ever, but there’s more of a sense this time around that they’re psychopaths who enjoy the hunt more than they do the actual murdering. Barring one attack in a swimming pool, the kills are uniformly disappointing, with the most interesting death happening off-screen following a seemingly tacked on pre-title sequence.
What’s noticeable from the start is the new victims being preyed on; a family of four away for a break in a trailer park with a fractured dynamic at the hands of their rebellious daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison). Right off the bat, the sensation of “Oh Look! Characters!” feels like the main emotional tie that the original so sorely lacked. There’s an immediate engagement to the degree that the audience can actually empathise rather than coldly spectate, and they even fulfil on arcs with chemistry and believability to an extent.
The cast of four are generally good, with Bailee Madison ruling the whole film as an unruly but sympathetic brat who has to get over playing the life role of a brooding teenager in order to survive. Christina Hendricks is typically excellent as protective mother Cindy, newcomer Lewis Pullman is decent as the golden boy son who reveals his own shortcomings through action and inaction at points, it’s only Martin Henderson as father Mike who leaves the least impact.
Are there downsides? Sure. As said before, the kills aren’t great or imaginative which is sadly the core reason people see these kinds of films in the first place. The characters are a little too arch but the actors sell them, and despite some unexpected turns the narrative takes later on it feels like it could have taken more risks with the material to ultimately make it something more. Although, the catharsis it will allow audience members left unaffected or annoyed by the events of the original is a big plus in the film’s favour, and it ends on a great final note.
The Strangers: Prey at Night shouldn’t work as well as it does for something that basically just puts the pieces together well enough to function. But it’s a far better effort than it could have been, and might surprise some with more than a vague interest in seeing how this belated sequel turned out.