Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Bryan Bertino, Ben Ketai
Producer: James Harris, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Mark Lane, Robert Jones, Ryan Kavanaugh
Stars: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Damian Maffei, Emma Bellomy, Lea Enslin
Three masked intruders terrorize a troubled family vacationing in an empty trailer park.
Horror fan factions are finicky about plans for sequels, reboots, and remakes. The age of anonymous online avatars has galvanized instant opinions to pick negative predispositions prior to projects going into production. Vocal contingents angrily shout dismissive derision in any available comments section based on nothing more than a press release, still photo, or imaginary conjecture.
How many people rained rage on Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” sight unseen solely for blaspheming the supposed sanctity of Dario Argento’s original? Remember everyone who scoffed at the Pennywise design for Andy Muschetti’s “It” (review here) only to have Bill Skarsgard’s incarnation become immediately iconic anyway?
Whether we’re talking Blumhouse’s “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th” as “found footage,” it’s curious how fandom arbitrarily decides ahead of time which ideas are guaranteed to be good and which ones are unequivocally assured to suck. They’re rarely right of course, although that doesn’t stop anyone from doubling down on erroneous assumptions to avoid making a mea culpa.
Along that line, in a fandom where announcements of new Rob Zombie films draw on-the-spot ire, it’s strange that a decade’s worth of rumblings regarding a follow-up to “The Strangers” (review here) rarely garnered much scorn or skepticism. On the contrary, rumors of sequelizing the 2008 hit drew excited responses of “yes please!” and “when?”
Given how hatefully many behaved in the other instances above, I find enthusiasm for another “The Strangers” odd because if ever there was a concept that lent itself to a one-and-done endeavor, it’s “The Strangers.” Streamlined in setup and in execution, writer/director Bryan Bertino made a mighty mountain out of a macabre molehill. He set the standard for home invasion thrillers using such simplicity that to hold out a bottle hoping the same sparse bolt could electrify a second chapter seemed certain to be a fool’s errand.
Maybe that’s why it took ten years for “The Strangers: Prey at Night” to come to fruition. Maybe the Powers That Be needed another ten to tune it into a truly worthy successor.
Bertino returns for this second run in a screenwriting capacity, contributing to a script also penned by filmmaker Ben Ketai. Johannes Roberts takes directorial duties, making him the third experienced horror helmer steering the movie. Perhaps the project’s inability to crack a straightforward setup swiftly can be pinned on a minimum of three creative directions conflicting during gestation, resulting in compromised content that’s content with being average instead of exceptional.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” follows roughly the same recipe as its predecessor. Emulating the original’s first act focus on examining endearing leads using earnest emotion, “Prey at Night” spends twenty largely inconsequential minutes establishing Mike and Cindy’s fractured bonds with troubled teen daughter Kinsey and less troubled teen son Luke. Kinsey’s bad behavior has earned her a ticket to boarding school. First, the family has scheduled one last hurrah for their foursome at a relative’s mobile home resort in the middle of nowhere.
Being the off season, the remote trailer park remains empty, save for two familiar masked madwomen and one murderous man. Once this trio puts the quarrelling quartet in their sights, exposition promptly drops off a cliff. That’s mostly for the best, momentum-wise. Acting isn’t awful. Yet when you have Martin Henderson playing dad so dopily that someone could mistake him for a comedy character who wandered into the wrong movie, jerking gears into classic slasher overdrive isn’t necessarily the worst course of action.
Because potential victims increase to six this time around, “Prey at Night” is less about the suspense of terrorizing two people and more about the visceral payoffs of blood and dead bodies. That’s counterintuitive to what made “The Strangers” memorably unsettling. Pop scares and slaughter push mystery and tension aside, putting “Prey at Night” in line with any number of other “masked killer on the loose in the dark” films.
That’s only the first detrimental flaw in the movie’s makeup. Another key misstep involves the order in which deaths occur. I’ll avoid spelling it out with a specific spoiler, but the final two people paired to survive together aren’t the two whose relationship needs the most repairing. It could be that Bertino, Ketai, and Roberts intended to take a less thematically obvious route. The tradeoff is that “Prey at Night” misses out on the most meaningful development arc for the short-term shock of including an unexpected kill.
“Prey at Night” gives off an exasperated sense that after years of false starts, producers finally capitulated with shrugged shoulders and cried, “close enough.” That’s as likely an explanation as any for why no one bothers sanding down distracting details before they can trip up plot progression.
What kind of contemporary SUV doesn’t have airbags? All four family members left their cellphones in the trailer? Not one of them keeps their phone in a pants pocket? How improbably massive is this trailer park that someone can not only get lost, but travel indefinitely in one direction without reaching a new location, even in a car? When these kinds of questions occupy a viewer’s imagination instead of the frightful fantasy, fault falls on the film for failing to capture attention better than minor contrivances.
While we never learned the motives of the intruders in “The Strangers,” that frustrating lack of information fueled the feeling of fear. Here, facelessness exposes the trio as empty conduits of interchangeable carnage. Outside of identifiable masks, what makes them “The Strangers” and not three other masked maniacs? Not much, to be frank.
Roberts confusingly jams in an 80s pop rock soundtrack and garishly lit sets evoking incongruous vibes of giallo, John Carpenter, and I’m not sure what. There’s clearly an effort of stylistic distinction, but that attempt doesn’t see support from a story with more premise than plot. “The Strangers” can field a similar accusation, except its slimness serviced mood. “Prey at Night” can’t go to that well to draw water that’s already been drunk. That’s why it’s stuck in a hole of mediocre ripping and running chasing a shadow it can’t quite catch.
Review Score: 55