The 2008 horror film The Strangers is, at its essence, a ripoff of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games with a high concept marketing angle (i.e. eerie masks and a crude smiley face logo). Now, 10 years later, we are granted with another high concept sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night. It is a film that both relies on the weight of its predecessor to get people to see it and expects us to ignore that first film when it attempts the same template.
Much of Prey at Night is a rehash of the first film. The victims, in this case a nuclear family of four (Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, and Lewis Pullman), are stalked quietly and forebodingly by three masked figures. The masked figures play tricks on the family before beginning to kill them off.
Both Strangers films exercise a sadistic level of nihilism to provide their entertainment. This is not to disparage the films, if that is what you are after in a horror picture. But at least in the first Strangers film the brutal nihilism is used to upend certain conventions of the slasher genre, particularly with that film’s end result.
Without divulging too many spoilers, this sequel attempts to have the same grim nihilism. But in trying to counter its predecessor with a unique twist, it actually bends back towards tired slasher conventions.
Prey at Night begins with a setup that gives us superficial backstory on the family. The daughter (Madison) is being shipped off to boarding school because of her bad behavior. She has taken up smoking. She doesn’t inhale, though, because it is really just a show. A cry for attention.
The mother (Hendricks) sympathizes with this rebellion, and both she and her husband (Henderson) take pains to show their love to their daughter in spite of the daughter’s transgressions.
And the son (Pullman). Well, he likes baseball.
Regardless, the characters don’t matter. The backstory doesn’t matter. It is all a contrived way of isolating the four people so that they can be stalked and killed one by one. In a way, the film provides more characterization in the killers than in the victims. At least it is intriguing that the killers seem to have no motive.
This is part and parcel to the issue of Prey at Night. The film may be tricking us into thinking that it wants us to align ourselves with the family, but clearly the filmmakers care more about the murderers. The camera revels in the grotesque outcomes of their machinations.
As a result, it is a struggle to find any reason to be surveying the violence in the first place. The irony is that the film’s inspiration, the aforementioned Funny Games, works because it is a commentary on the audience fascination with on-screen violence. I have a feeling that Johannes Roberts, Bryan Bertino, and Ben Ketai missed that subtext when they watched Haneke’s film.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is not entirely dreadful. There are minor sequences of note when it comes to assessing the tense mood that the film is going for. One sequence involving a pool and the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is especially well executed.
Many of the scenes, though, are static. There are some ominous uses of blocking with the killers that work, and some instances that undercut the jump scare convention which should be praised.
But the good doesn’t amount to much and is often buried under a mound of cliches and plot holes. The script will lower the intelligence of its victims in order to allow the film to continue. You can feel the screenwriter stretching taffy in order to make this a feature length film.
Characters will receive a weapon or a means of escape, and then they will lose those items in confounding ways. In one sublimely infuriating and hilarious instance, a character holds one of the masked killers at gunpoint and just decides not to shoot.
To be frank, the Occam’s razor solution to this film’s central conflict is to put your back to the villains, who never do anything more strenuous than walk slowly or lunge forward. When you simplify it that far, the entire movie becomes farcical. But even suspending your disbelief enough to warrant the running around from hiding place to hiding place does not let one buy the actions that these characters take.
Then again, no one is buying the “based on a true story” gimmick either. It’s a true story, because people have murdered people before.
The Strangers: Prey at Night: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)