The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018)

MARCH 9, 2018


Here's a funny fact: on the weekend The Strangers opened in 2008, it was next to the original Iron Man on the box office chart. Since then, Iron Man's success paved the way for seventeen more films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with two more on the way this summer. These films have told an ongoing story, wrangling the stars from one movie to pop up in small roles in the others, with many of the actors breaking records for how many times they've played the same character as they keep coming back (and not just for the paychecks; most of them seem to genuinely love being part of something so unique). Incredulous as it may seem, the same amount of time has produced exactly one sequel to a masked killer horror movie. The Strangers: Prey At Night isn't the longest wait ever for a part 2 in Hollywood history (even in horror we had longer waits for the first sequels to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, etc.), but it's been a damn long ten years waiting for the next installment in what seemed like a can't-miss franchise. Surely, after all that time they at least can't be accused of rushing it, and came up with something equally memorable, right?

Alas, not quite - but at least they gave it a good try, and it will likely more or less do the trick for those who need their big screen slasher itch scratched. One thing they definitely got right was not continuing the story of Liv Tyler's character, because the randomness and lack of motive is a big part of what made the original work, and going after her again would dip too far into Halloween territory ("That girl... that Armageddon girl... that's Pin-Up's sister!"). This time our targets are a family of four led by Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks, who are - if I am following the clearly re-edited opening scenes correctly - driving their bratty teenaged daughter (Bailee Madison) to boarding school, with their older/less problematic son in tow. We never know what she did to deserve this punishment or even how far they're going to get there, but because they're strapped for cash they plan to stop not at a traditional hotel, but a family campground resort run by Hendricks' uncle. It's the off season so no one's there... except for the trio of familiar killers (Pin-Up, Dollface, and Man in the Mask) who have already dispatched the uncle and his wife in an opening scene. Not long after the heroes arrive, Dollface comes to the door and again inquires about Tamra, then a family argument separates some of them from the others, and then the cat and mouse stuff begins.

Now, if you strip The Strangers down to its bare essentials, it's about masked killers stalking innocent people - i.e. a movie you've seen 8,000 times, but it had a few things that put it a notch (a few notches, in my opinion) above its usual competition. First and foremost, the characters were stuck in a very awkward situation - Tyler had just turned down Scott Speedman's marriage proposal, spoiling a very romantic getaway in the cabin (there's a bit about rose petals in the tub that legit breaks my heart every time I watch the movie) and leaving their relationship's future in doubt. This is a rarely used concept for any genre, let alone horror, and as someone pointed out, the movie might be interesting to watch even without the killers showing up. There is a clear attempt to recreate that kind of dynamic here, with the daughter being pissed off at the parents who are trying to enjoy their last time together as a family, but it rings a bit false, and being a sequel, there's an unavoidable "let's get to the scary stuff" impatience which might have been softened had the situation been less cliche. How many daughters being angry at their parents have we seen in horror movies? Seven or eight thousand?

The scary stuff in the original was also unique. For starters, they didn't stray far from the house, which wasn't even particularly big, so they didn't even have a downstairs to hide in or anything like that. And that leads to another, even more important thing that made it such a winner: with a compact cast of two (one of whom, Speedman's character, left for a chunk of the runtime anyway) and not much room for chase sequences, the Strangers made themselves known to us a long time before they were known to Liv Tyler - the poster famously just used an image from the film itself, showing one of them just casually/creepily standing behind her in the house while she snuck a smoke break. There was also a strong sense of claustrophobia, as when they DID make their presence known and Liv would try to hide, it often felt like a no-win situation for her, only for the killers to resume toying with her by simply walking away rather than close in for the kill.

Unfortunately, this script (by the original's Bryan Bertino along with Ben Katai) goes in a different, less interesting direction by spreading the characters around the resort, which has multiple trailers, a playground, a construction site, the office, a pool... and also making its strangers more assertive in their actions. I won't spoil specifics, but the body count is not only higher this time but kicks in earlier than you might expect, and it doesn't quite work as a shock so much as a "Oh, well they just blew their wad" kind of thing. Granted, now we know that the Strangers are definitely OK with killing (don't forget, it's Speedman who commits the film's first murder, of his friend who came to help. Until the very end, the masked trio had plenty of opportunities to kill that they simply didn't take), but they could have dragged it out a bit longer and let the murdered person DO a bit more instead of being disposed almost instantly. Plus, with everyone constantly running around, fully aware of their predicament, it opens itself up to too many of the sort of dumb moments that the original largely avoided. No one would accuse those heroes of being geniuses, but most of their actions fell in the usual kind of "OK I'd probably do the same" line of thinking, whereas here we get people who run around on foot looking for someone instead of using their car that the Strangers didn't bother to disable.

It also lacked the claustrophobic element, and worse, rarely uses those other areas for anything memorable. For example, the film is almost over by the time the pool is utilized, when the person being chased is fully aware of what's happening. Why not have someone go into the pool earlier, before they knew anything was wrong, and let a Stranger toy with them/the audience a bit? Not to mention let them be vulnerable by choice, which is always a good way to get the pulses racing. The pool scene is one of the film's highlights, for sure, but it also feels like they could have done so much more with it. We also see signs for a mini golf course, and someone uses one of its putters at one point, but it's otherwise left unused/unseen, which seems like another missed opportunity. All of the elements are there to at least live up to the original's quota for great suspenseful setpieces and moments, but the order of the day here is fast chases and jump scares (one of which works amazing even though it's spoiled in the trailer), and so while it's not bad, it's also not likely to leave you rattled when you get home, either (that the characters aren't even in their home this time adds to that, of course).

And it's particularly frustrating to me, because I spent a lot of time in a similar campground/resort as a kid, and would get a bit unnerved whenever I was there during off-season (to prep our trailer for the season, or close it up once we stopped going) and saw how quiet/empty the usually bustling place was. So I know exactly how it feels to be weirded out in one of those places, and it still failed to generate even half as much raw uneasiness as the original did (which had me a bit spooked later that week when I caught a shadow through the light under my front door late one night). That said, director Johannes Roberts definitely knew one way to win me over: utilizing a pair of my beloved Jim Steinman songs. In a filmed intro they played before the movie, he talked about his filmmaking influences, which were mainly John Carpenter, and naturally that led to him talking about the soundtrack. After talking about the score for a bit, he said that he decided to use pop songs for the first time in his career, adding, almost apologetically, "I hope you like Jim Steinman." As anyone who has read more than five words from me knows, I ADORE Jim Steinman and consider him a personal hero, so using not one but two of his tunes in the film (albeit in the final 15 minutes, by which point I had already realized this one wasn't up to par) was a good way to at least send me out of the theater in a good mood.

Back to Carpenter though, it's important for every person seeing this movie to understand that Halloween wasn't what he was talking about (nor was it Ghosts of Mars, the framed poster of which was behind him in his video, which delighted me). Despite the plots having nothing to do with each other, his biggest shoutouts were The Fog and Christine, which I respect since most people paying tribute to JC go with Halloween, The Thing, or Escape From New York (well, they used to. Now they get sued). So when a car and its driver are set on fire and they keep pursuing a protagonist, you just have to kind of roll with it and, if you can, appreciate that he's going all out with his attempt to homage Christine in this non-supernatural film, rather than let Man in the Mask or one of the others just act like Michael Myers in the film's scope playground. As for The Fog, the homage is basically just stealing the main theme for his new score (not by the original's Tomandandy), which I found very distracting, almost obnoxious at times, but thankfully for Roberts and co. the average (read: younger) moviegoer who thinks of Taken's daughter and Smallville when they think of "The Fog" won't even notice it.

Roberts doesn't just fawn over Carpenter the whole time, thankfully. Most curiously, he employs a lot of zooms that seem inspired by Italian gialli of the 70s, one of which is used for a terrific beat where you think you're about to get an Exorcist III shears kill kinda thing but end up with a more crowd-pleasing alternative. On that note, again trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, this one is less grim than the original, so if that one's bummer ending left you cold I think you'll be more satisfied here, as the heroes do at least get to fight back a bit more. In fact, I think the people who will enjoy this the most are those who didn't see the original at all - and I should stress there's no real need to see it beforehand if you haven't yet, as there is no connection to it (not even an obligatory newspaper clipping about the first film's events). Since they're just doing the same kind of thing, the novelty won't be worn off like it was for me, and you won't be "waiting" for the scattered bits that are more inspired, liked when Man in the Mask has a victim dead to rights in a car and he takes a moment to find a good song on the radio to listen to while he finishes the person off (this isn't one of the Steinman song parts, I should note - but I would have lost my shit if it was "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", even if it was a bit on the nose).

So that's why this is a tough review to write - it all sounds negative, but really apart from the not-great choice to off one of the family members so quickly (though even that might legit shock some and work; just didn't for me) there's nothing BAD about the movie - it's just going through the motions. It almost feels like we're actually on The Strangers 4 or 5 (ideally where they'd be by now, using usual franchise scheduling) and they know that the die-hards will show up and be satisfied to see their now-iconic killers doing their thing again, the way people defend certain later installments of the Friday the 13th or Elm Street series. Maybe I was expecting a bit too much after all this time (to be fair, I know some of the delay was due to various studio issues - this one is not from the same distributor as the original, you might notice), so perhaps I'll like it more in repeat viewings if I ever find the time for them, but for now my final word is that the less you care about the original film, the more likely you are to enjoy its sequel.

What say you?


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