The Strangers: Prey at Night [Review by SpecialK]
Don’t open the door. Get the gun. Don’t go back in there. About halfway through every horror movie, at least one of these thoughts goes through your mind, or if you’re especially lucky, gets shouted at the screen by the person behind you in the theater. And it’s at that same moment, while you watch the horrified heroine do the exact opposite of what you know she should be doing, that you stop caring about her fate. Suddenly, it’s not real and you can root for whoever you want, because come on, nobody in real life would be that dumb.
But what are you supposed to think when the heroine does everything right? What does it mean if she’s seen all the horror films, reaches for the phone, makes use of every open door, arms herself with all the weapons, and we are still biting our nails wondering if she’ll make it out alive? That’s the novel question The Strangers tackled in 2008, and the same question its sequel explores a decade later in The Strangers: Prey at Night.
Much like the first film, Prey at Night is centered on very average people facing ho-hum problems. The rebel teen daughter (played by Bailee Madison, who offers quite an effective, believable, and un-annoying performance, regardless of what her name might suggest) is out of control, so the family of four packs up the minivan and heads out to drop her off at boarding school, stopping at mom’s family’s vacation rental trailer park for an overnight along the way. This Hallmark-level plot takes a quick left turn when the kids find mom’s aunt and uncle brutally murdered, and a girl the family turns away at the door isn’t just lost—she’s after them. And she’s not alone. The family spends the rest of the night scrambling to survive a senseless but persistent assault by three masked assassins who seem to be nowhere and everywhere at once.
The cadence of Prey at Night closely mirrors the first film. We get a glimpse early on of the horror to come, we get invested in the backstories and relationships of our main characters, and we squirm when the masked strangers find the creepiest of ways to quietly pursue their prey. We also enjoy some creatively-shot fight scenes, as well as a few creepy jump scares—especially impressive because they manage to make the crowd shriek (guilty) without an ugly clang of sound.
But as expected of any horror sequel, you gotta mix it up the second time around if you want the scares to stick, and that’s where Prey at Night falls short. Instead of amping up the creep factor the first film nailed so masterfully, the sequel turns to gore early and often. For you bloody gore-seeking goons, that might be just what you’re looking for, but for me—yawn. It’s some pretty lazy filmmaking.
Although Prey at Night reverts to Scream-like close calls and I-Know-What-You-Did Last-Summer-style whack-a-mole character deaths, it pushes the envelope in other ways. My favorite? The full deck of 80s power ballads carefully selected for the soundtrack. That’s right, early on, we learn that our main villain, the Man in the Mask, has a soft spot for digital effects, synthesizers, and booming fake beats. Who knows—maybe under that frumpy suit and beneath that canvas bag, he’s rocking big hair, leggings, and neon. There’s something creative, terrifying, and altogether hilarious about a villain calmly walking toward his victim while dragging an axe—to Air Supply. If you had anything to do with these decisions, director Johannes Roberts, I may forgive you for 47 Meters Down and The Other Side of the Door. Maybe.
SpecialK Verdict: If you’re looking for a gory film whose villain is just in it for kicks, see The Strangers: Prey at Night. If you’re like me and look for more lasting, creepy scares, stick to the original and buy the sequel’s soundtrack instead. Because some songs never tire.
The Strangers: Prey at Night opened on Friday, March 9.