“Because you were home.”
That line is the scariest part of the 2008 home invasion slasher The Strangers. It perfectly captures the movie’s sense of nihilistic dread, the fear that three people might decide to torture and kill you for no reason at all.
That dread is also the biggest argument against the existence of this year’s sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. The masked killers – unofficially called “Dollface,” “Man in the Mask,” and “Pin-Up Girl” – still lack discernable motivation, but we do know a little bit about them now. When Dollface pounds on the door and asks for Tamera, it lacks the same chill as the original. We’ve seen this before. It’s their schtick.
It’s to the credit of director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Below) that the movie is so effective despite losing that crucial element.
Prey at Night follows the old sequel maxim of “the same, but more.” In addition to upping the body count with a prelude, this entry swaps out the original’s couple on the rocks with a nuclear family and expands the setting from a single house to an abandoned trailer park. And like the original, our victims here are in the throes of domestic turmoil: teenage daughter Kinsey’s (Bailee Madison) unspecified rebellions force her mom and dad (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) to send her to a boarding school, with older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) reluctantly in tow.
That’s hardly the most exciting drama, and Kinsey’s fashionably ripped jeans and Ramones t-shirt signals a Hot Topic shopper more than a juvenile delinquent, but the small personal stakes work in light of the movie’s existential threat. Problems that one seemed so monumental become utterly meaningless when you’re hunted for no reason.
Roberts accentuates this meaninglessness by giving the film ironic distance. Cinematographer Ryan Samul shoots the movie beautifully, employing long-distance shots with which he zooms or slowly pushes onto the characters from far away, reinforcing the sense that they’re constantly being followed. Samul occasionally spikes the screen with colors from gaudy neon lights around the park, which pairs well with the soundtrack — a mix of 80s pop (Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” figure prominently) and Adrien Johnston’s Goblin-inspired original score. Juxtaposing slasher horror with neon and synth is a page from Adam Winguard’s play book, but it works exceptionally well here. As demonstrated by a scene in which a character tries to keep above water in a pool while bleeding out from a stab wound, the music and color implies the universe laughing while people die horrible deaths.
These drawn out scenes of suffering are difficult to endure, but they set the movie apart from most slashers. We actually care about the family and the film simultaneously acknowledges and expands our sadness at their deaths. The family members are sensible people, which not only makes us like them, but it allows Roberts and screenwriters Brian Bertino and Ben Katai to dodge cliches about dumb victims. For example, the victims lose their cell phones because, before bad things happen, dad collects them for quality family time — leaving them in a convenient pile when the killers come to smash them.
So while the final third act is still fun, one cannot help but be disappointed when the movie starts directly following slasher tropes, giving the heretofore human killers Jason Voorhees’s teleportation and regeneration powers, and hitting well-worn story beats.
These genre dips make the movie feel too familiar, which is a shame. Up until that point, The Strangers: Prey at Night managed to scare despite making its agents of cosmic indifference become more predictable.