Few slasher films are this much of a mixed bag.
If you ever find yourself spending the night in a semi-remote cabin with friends asking you to pick a “scary movie” to watch you can hardly do better than 2008’s The Strangers. (Especially if, like me, you insist the film be watched with the lights off and the doors/windows unlocked.) It suffers one or two issues, but the whole is a masterwork that builds suspense, ratchets up tension, and delivers legitimate scares without the need of cheap music stingers. A sequel was long-rumored, and now ten years later one has finally appeared.
The expected “Based on true events” text appears onscreen as a familiar pickup truck moves slowly through a fog-shrouded trailer park. It stops, and within mere minutes the trio within has terrified and presumably offed an old couple. A dysfunctional family of four arrives some time later — Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) and their teenagers Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman) — to spend the weekend with their newly deceased relatives, but what they find instead is a night of terror.
The Strangers: Prey at Night follows the basic setup of its predecessor with protagonists on edge and at odds before the killers even arrive, but while it doubles the potential victim pool it cuts in half our empathy and concern for them. The film’s first fifty minutes or so are a generic and rushed affair — albeit happily one without a reliance on music stingers for scares — but director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) finally brings it all to life with some killer third act beats.
The family is a frustrating bunch isn’t exactly made up of the sharpest bulbs in the drawer — dad doesn’t even know what “queef” means — and that leaves viewers caring even less about them. The script (by Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai) is mostly to blame as the family members argue, sigh, and give each other grief to the point that they’re far from likeable. Their current drama involving Kinsey being shipped off to boarding school does nothing for our affection for them, and it only gets worse once the danger starts. They make every dumb, cliched move we’ve come to expect from the genre including numerous illogical decisions and an annoying disinterest in fighting back. One of them literally stands there as Dollface stabs them slowly and repeatedly. It’s frustrating.
The film sees the titular killers begin the night as expected — a late night knock followed by “Is Tamara home?” — but while the first film teased out the situation this one jumps right to it. The result is a noticable lack of suspense as an unsettling atmosphere and increasing tension are replaced with generic scenes of runnning, hiding, and runing some more. The trailer park is apparently so large that screams can’t be heard in the dead of night but so small that the killers are always tucked away in just the right hiding space waiting for a family member to show up. They’re given a god-like omniscence that lends a certain blandness to characters who should be terrifying, and I’m not even talking about the Master’s Degrees they all apparently hold in Shadow Play.
But then something unexpected happens.
The characters, both victims and killers, come alive. Our surviving protagonists realize they can actually resist being murdered, and our antagonists discover they’re every bit as human in both their strengths and weaknesses. For the first time uncertainty creeps onscreen leaving viewers unsure what will happen and who will live, and the action even finds room to breathe with Christine-inspired vehicular fun. Scenes move in fresh directions, outcomes vary greatly from ones you’re sure are coming, and you might even find yourself cheering for characters you previously disliked. That’s a long way from the somber experience of the first film.
Roberts also delivers a showstopper sequence involving a pool, neon lights, and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that feels like one you’ll still remember come year’s end. He uses 80s music throughout the film, but here it feels beautifully in sync with the visuals onscreen. The action, suspense, and sensory overload of the scene create a thrilling genre cocktail that leaves you wishing the whole film was this tasty and vibrant.
Prey at Night falls back slightly in its waning minutes with two endings too many, but it still leaves viewers on the high of its killer third act. It’s also more than enough to save the movie (thanks in part to a running time under ninety minutes). This is ultimately a lesser Strangers when it comes to scares, suspense, and atmosphere, but it edges out the original in its sense of fun and energy. So go ahead… answer the door.