2008’s The Strangers was not a slasher film. The slow burn tension of the original made it an effectively sleek and subtly creepy home invasion film had more in common with ur-texts of the slashers like Wait Until Dark or Black Christmas than Friday the 13th. It immersed the audience in the quiet atmosphere that sent chills down spines far more than the over the top gore one would usually get from the slasher genre. Director Bryan Bertino made one feel like they were stuck in a house that looked very familiar. One that you could have grown up in. And then plopped in these simple yet highly disturbing moments of tension by simply having some guy in a mask walk in the background. Especially in a situation where our leads were a couple that had their faith in trusting each other tested. Seriously, there’s a reason why the scene where Liv Tyler is drinking water while one of the masked murders lurks in the corner. There’s a deliberate pace and compelling emotional character dynamic going on that makes some of the jump scares and boring moments feel far more tactful in retrospect.
That all being said, the long long delayed sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night isn’t really that type of film. There are plenty points where director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down, The Other Side of the Door) tries to ape Bertino’s style of direction, mainly in the first half that tries to build up that same type of tension. Yet, there’s a real repetition there that doesn’t feel as impactful. I lost count of how many times Roberts uses the same type of close up action that Bertino doled out far more gracefully and purposefully with the original film. There seems to be more of an impatience to get to the horrific elements here, which betrays much of the spirit of what worked about the original in a disappointing fashion. It doesn’t help that composer Adrian Johnston also utilizes an incredibly repetitive score that also blatantly lifts from many a synthesized score of the 80s. There were several points where I wondered if Johnston was directly lifting from John Carpenter’s The Fog score.
The one thing that The Strangers: Prey at Night gets from the original is decently compelling characters. The family dynamic here is one wrought with an intriguing tension, which is mainly exploited by Bailee Madison as the trouble maker daughter and her parents Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson. The three have a believable chemistry that fractures the family unit early on due to Bailee’s impending boarding school appointment because of her reckless behavior. She has a reasonable amount of angst that Hendricks and Henderson are fighting against but understandably feel guilty about. This even manages to fix the obvious issue of updating the characters in a modern world context by solving the obvious ubiquitous iPhone problem in a swift yet effective manner. Lewis Pullman as the brother is a bit more of a mixed bag. On one hand, he and Madison have a few nice moments of brother/sister chemistry. Yet, Lewis goes back and forth between being a believable character in a horrific situation and a flat out slasher protagonist stereotype. One minute, he’s making believable mistakes & righteous moves. The next he’s blatantly doing things no one would for the sake of the scares, though the other characters aren’t totally immune to this.
This dycodemy really represents The Strangers: Prey at Night as the tug and pull follow up no one asked for and the filmmakers kind of gave up on doing. Yet, once the film honestly abandons being a sequel to The Strangers… it becomes a pretty damn satisfying slasher. This is a gradual progression that takes one off guard, but in a way that makes you compelled to see how this will turn out. The ridiculous set pieces that come about don’t fit in the world of the original film, but fit perfectly for an over the top slasher that ups the ante in terms of madness. Opening up the scale from one house to an entire trailer park also helps open up the possibilities to ludacris yet oddly entertaining proportions. The use of tunes like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Taylor doesn’t quite fit with the more indie influence soundtrack of the original. Yet, the swimming pool clash the song is used for is a damn enthralling sequence that showcases some impressive editing and skillful hand to hand combat.
Now, this turn definitely betrays the iconic masked killers. The once tactful yet grounded murders have essentially become Terminators out to destroy our leads at any cost. This makes their more grounded moments early on largely fall flat and feel underwhelming. Yet, when they drop the shenanigans and become high octane slashers, The Strangers: Prey at Night kicks into a higher gear that surprises and entertains far more than one would expect. It does help that the characters who face off against these killers have gone through enough hell to make us want to see them succeed… and they succeed more than one would anticipate for a variety of reason.
In all honesty, The Strangers: Prey at Night would have worked far better if it wasn’t a sequel to the original The Strangers. Part of me wonders if this film originated as a separate slasher film on its own before being curtailed into a Strangers follow up. The farther is strays from failing to replicate the taut nuance of the original and turn into a goofier 80s slasher, the more The Strangers: Prey at Night succeeds. In that way, the film in and of itself is a microcosm on the evolution of the slasher genre. Poorly attempting to capture the grounded creepiness of the genre to bountiful siller slashers in order to spice up the formula. Thus, it is a film in conflict with its origin that works best when it steps out of it. Still, the one thing I wished The Strangers: Prey at Night kept from the original was a sudden It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia cameo. Was really hoping Danny DeVito would come out in a mask at the end screaming “I’M THE AXE MAN!”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Well Used Golf Clubs
- Horror News Radio Episode 257: Primal Rage
- Decades of Horror 1990s and Beyond: Army of Darkness (1993)
- Gruesome Magazine Episode 10: 19th Annual Nevermore Film Festival
- Horror News Radio Extra: Ash vs Evil Dead Season 3 Episode 2: Family