From the Archives: The Strangers: Prey at Night review

From the Archives: The Strangers: Prey at Night review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Let it be known that The Strangers, the 2008 home invasion thriller which spawned many an imitator, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my life. It commits every sin a horror movie could. It’s boring, it’s not scary, and its painfully clear that the filmmakers were just lazy. There are few things worse than watching The Strangers once, and one of them is watching it a second time to see if you were wrong the first time only to find out that, if anything, you didn’t hate it enough. The only thing worse than that is receiving a phone call from your doctor requesting that you to come to his office so he can talk to you in person about your recent battery of blood tests.

A thriller shouldn’t be allowed to be so bland, nor should two potential victims be played in a manner that, even at their most lively, could only be described as “corpse-like.” Not only that, but the trio of masked murderers behave in a way that makes it plainly clear how aware they are of the camera. When they creep around the house, they do so in ways that belie logic. They make appearances designed only to scare the viewers, a grouped of people that they shouldn’t be aware of. They can’t see their victims, nor can the victims see them. To give any of the blocking even a modicum of thought would be to find that the killers are just kinda standing around so we at home can see them in the background. If the movie were even a little bit scary, this might be forgivable, but it’s not. Even the invocation of “based on a true story” fails to make any beat in the film feel anything less than perfunctory.

And while we’re on it, allow me to enlighten you to what “true story” this was based on. Writer/director Bryan Bertino was home alone one night and he received a knock at the door. He answered it to find that it was someone looking for a different house. He sent them on their way and then proceeded to spook himself while thinking about the Manson murders. He then wrote The Strangers. That’s it. God, I hate The Strangers. Seriously, the only redeeming quality it has is that it’s optional.

I digress. Let’s leave The Strangers behind us, where it belongs (downwind from my flatulence), and focus on The Strangers: Prey at Night, which I assure you is indeed the title of this movie that really does exist and really is titled The Strangers: Prey at Night.

So yeah, The Strangers: Prey at Night (which is what this movie is called) needed only to be more enjoyable than a stomach virus to fare better than the original film. I am pleased to report that despite having entirely different aims, and despite having the most nonsensical title since Batman Forever, this decade-late follow up to a movie that didn’t need one is quite a bit of fun.

Rather than doing another home invasion story, this new Strangers tale takes more of a slasher route, which is apparent from moment one. The film opens with a decidedly 1970s-inspired title card, which almost makes the ridiculous title work. It’s set over what initially sounds like some 1980s-inspired John Carpenter music. Despite the immediate and sloppy mixing of two horror styles right off the bat, the commitment to doing a throwback (to something, anything!) works. The music soon reveals itself not to be a score, but to be the opening riff to Kim Wilde’s Kids in America. Give that song a listen and you’ll see exactly what I mean. It’s a pretty cool trick, even though it reeks of empty novelty. But I’m not here for high-class horror. This is the sequel to perhaps the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, so my expectations were pretty low.

The setting for the carnage is an off-season trailer park. The trio of killers from the first movie (well, at least they have the same masks) has taken out the parks’ caretakers, and are now anticipating the arrival of the caretakers’ extended family. Looking at the IMDB page, I cannot find a surname for the family, so let’s just call them “The Whites.” Mom and Dad (Christina Hendricks & Martin Henderson, two solid performers who seem doomed to make middle of the road movies for the remainder of their career) have decided to enroll their troublemaker daughter (Bailee Madison) into boarding school. Along with their son (Lewis Pullman), the Whites are planning on staying at the trailer park for one night to break up their long drive to the school. Once they arrive, the strangers start stalking and killing them. That’s pretty much it, and for what it’s worth, it all works well.

The family dynamics are better than they have any right to be, which is more than can be said about the turgid subplot of the original film. The kills are appropriately brutal and stylish, even if they do seem a bit forced. Overall, The Strangers: Prey at Night seems to think that it’s pulling a Death Proof, when it’s really closer to a Planet Terror. What I mean is that this film wants to be a throwback to a very specific style, but feels more like it’s aping other superior throwbacks to certain style. It leans on nostalgic cues without fully understanding them. Even so, it works in a functional sense. The ham-handed and non-comical mix of 70s and 80s influences ultimately becomes of value, culminating in a beautifully shot, hyper-colored poolside showdown set to Total Eclipse of the Heart. It’s hokey, but it works. Kudos to cinematographer Ryan Samul, whose previous work on the films of Jim Mickle remains some of the best in modern horror. Director Johannesburg Roberts stages everything well, and even the clumsier moments exhibit the work of a filmmaker trying his best to make something fresh and exciting. In that sense, it’s the polar opposite of the first film, which may as well have been titled Nap Time.

The Strangers: Prey at Night is a solid little chiller that delivers on everything it should and nothing it shouldn’t. It’s a sequel that definitely does not need to exist, but manages to make a case for its own existence by swinging for the fences stylistically. I’ll take it.

The Strangers: Prey at Night opens in Philly theaters today.

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