Film reviews and more since 2009

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018) review

Dir. Johannes Roberts

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

The Strangers: Prey at Night is a middling sequel to a decade-old horror film, so thin in plot and conceit that this tardy follow-up could’ve just been called its subtitle and few would’ve probably noticed. When you have a concept as simple as “murder just because,” and your strongest attributes come in the form of any tangential themes your execution inspired, do you really have a franchise? I dunno. Saw got to nine movies, but at least writers had to be challenged creatively to come up with new ways to butcher and maim folks.

Save for a peculiar emphasis on eighties synthpop and evident influence from veteran horror directors, The Strangers: Prey at Night has little to offer any serious horror buff. Even those with the expectations of an uncomfortable chiller might be letdown on the basis of how slight and indistinct of a sequel this is. At 78 minutes long (that’s the unrated version, mind you), Johannes Roberts’ film suggests the dumb luck, timing, and relatively barren and uninspiring horror landscape in the late aughts contributed to the success of The Strangers just as much as its burning desire for showcasing nihilistic terror.

After opening with four of the most overused words to sell a horror film (“Based on true events”), we drop in on a cute suburban family, anchored by mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Grey’s Anatomy Martin Henderson), during a tumultuous time. They are sending their angsty teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison, who you might remember as the adorable little girl in Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh) to boarding school in the near future, despite their lack of finances. Tensions are high as the family, including their eldest son Luke (Lewis Pullman), pile into the car to visit their uncle, who lives in a trailer park.

Upon arriving at their relative’s trailer, they find it abandoned with only a note saying they’ll return in the morning. They barely have enough time to get settled when things take a turn for the strange. A woman keeps coming to the door and asking for a girl named Tamara, and find words written on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. Luke and Kinsey make the dreadful discovery of the butchered corpses of their relatives, and from there, it doesn’t take long for the family to encounter three masked individuals who terrorize them as the night drags on.

One perk, if you want to call it that, is that The Strangers: Prey at Night is more active than its predecessor. As opposed to the slowburn dread that built as the first film’s couple wandered around their home, largely unaware of the danger they were in until it was too late, Roberts and screenwriters Bryan Bertino (who directed the first film) and Ben Ketai explore the possibilities afforded by a cat-and-mouse game between the family and the killers. Rather than having them remain in their trailer, they have them wander the campground, try and escape by car, and get them out and running. The downfall to this is how frequently dark things get, and from therein, the visuals suffer from being too murky. This is one of the greatest frustrations in any horror film, and Roberts, try as he might, can’t rescue many outdoor scenes from ranging anywhere from momentarily unclear to entirely too dark to distinguish what is happening. It causes the tension to fluctuate dramatically and the final product to suffer as a result.

Roberts clearly finds influence in the films of Brian De Palma, as he toys with silhouettes and shadows on several occasions, along with John Carpenter and his preoccupation with the dimly lit outdoors, but not nearly enough depth to make the entire package intriguing as a whole. For one, the central family isn’t characterized well enough, and are too thin to sympathize with on the merits of their personalities. If anything, they’re brought to life by above-average acting, specifically from Madison and Henderson, who earn their stripes even playing blandly conceived characters. Let it be known: killing for the sake of killing and murder “just because,” as The Strangers proved to us, can be made engaging. Just look at The Devil’s Rejects for added evidence of that. But this sequel feels like a retread of already threadbare formula, and once you recognize that we have little understanding of our protagonists and know zilch about our villains, outside of what we pay to see, the killings — which are mostly generic too — don’t inspire much amusement either.

Roberts and company have a strange fixation with eighties power ballads and synthpop songs, which largely comprise the soundtrack for The Strangers: Prey at Night. Bertino’s original milked Merle Haggard’s introspective ditty “Mama Tried” for whatever spooky ambiance it could inspire, and this time around, we get an extended sequence at the trailer-park’s outdoor pool (the best in the entire film) showing a confrontation between two characters scored by Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and lit by the blue water and neon palm-trees nearby. It’s actually a very cool scene; an indicator of what this film needed more, not less, of in order to go beyond the obvious slasher tropes. Another interesting moment has the “Man in the Mask,” as he’s credited, scanning the radio for a satisfying song before doing the inevitable to one of the family members, who is pinned in their vehicle. In a sly little scene, it’s as if you can see the drawn-on smirk on his potato-sack mask turn upwards as the song plays. The filmmakers needed more moments like this.

It should also be noted that even during brief underwater shots, Roberts is crisp and well-aware of space, which shouldn’t be a surprise given he directed the surprise success 47 Meters Down with similar poise.

Lacking the keen social observations of its predecessors and doubling-down on formula in manner that comes off as thin and unfavorably conventional, The Strangers: Prey at Night fumbles a great opportunity to follow a cynical and well-made low-budget thriller. Instead, it’s a bloody, nihilistic roller-coaster ride you’ve already ridden many times before.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Strangers: Prey at Night is available to stream on Max.

My review of The Strangers (2008)

Starring: Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Damian Maffei, Emma Bellomy, and Lea Enslin. Directed by: Johannes Roberts.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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