“The Strangers” was one of the first horror films I had the courage to watch as a kid, and because of it, it’s always stayed in my mind as one of my favorites. Not only because of that, but because home invasion was one of my biggest childhood fears. Today, that fear has somewhat subsided, with a bit in the back of my mind still somehow telling me I’m not safe in my home, and due to that, “The Strangers” has stood the test of time for me. Since 2009, talk of a sequel from creator Bryan Bertino has been touted heavily, but it always found a way to get delayed, and once the original production company, Rogue Pictures, folded with Relativity Media in 2015, it seemed to have been gone forever. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the series found life in the independent film circuit, and like no delays had ever happened, the sequel finally had its wheels turning, but was it worth a 10-year wait?
I, personally, don’t find any sequel worth waiting more than five years for, but if I had to, you can do a hell of a lot worse than “The Strangers: Prey at Night.”
When teenager Kinsey (Bailee Madison) breaks the last straw in her rebellious streak, her parents, Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), finally are forced to put her into boarding school. Whilst moving her away, the family, including older brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman), stop for the night at their uncle’s lakeside trailer park resort. It being after Labor Day, the grounds are all but deserted, but not for long. Shortly after settling in to the trailer, the family receives a knock at the door from a young blonde woman, asking if Tamara is home. After another similar incident with the same girl, we soon discover this seemingly harmless girl is a member of a murderous masked trio, terrorizing this family for the sheer thrill. Together, the family must push through their personal tension to survive the night.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is not a thinking man’s horror film, nor does it claim to be, and nor does it have to be. With the influx of “intelligent” horror films of the past few years, made popular by indie films like “The Witch,” “It Comes at Night” and “It Follows,” it becomes difficult to look at something simple and clean like this film and to think much of it. Yet, horror films aren’t always here to provoke deep thought, but to scare and entertain, which “The Strangers: Prey at Night” does wonderfully. This is not a film to waste time or beat around the bush, but to jump in almost immediately to get the blood-soaked ball rolling. This is a lean, mean, exceedingly simple killing machine of a movie, one that doesn’t need endless exposition and metaphor to scare its audience, but to play up our primal fears of helplessness.
Performances are fine across the board, with Madison and Pullman pulling most of the weight on this film, with some truly killer moments. Hendricks and Henderson are also quite good here, especially having never seen any of these accomplished actors take the dive into horror before. Still, this is not a film in itself to lend itself to wonderful performances, so even if the performances had been outright bad, I probably wouldn’t have minded too much, but the existence of solid ones does a film good in any context.
While this sequel was originally to be directed by the first film’s director, Bryan Bertino, he stepped down to a co-writer and executive producer role, and was replaced in the director’s chair by Johannes Roberts. It’s no secret I didn’t like wither of Roberts’ first two films, “The Other Side of the Door” and “47 Meters Down,” but scaling himself back to something less ambitious and ham-fisted really works for him in this context. Utilizing the Kentucky countryside well, he builds an atmosphere of creepiness and dread from the start. Being from many rural areas across the South, the familiarity of this atmosphere made “The Strangers: Prey at Night” far more engaging than perhaps some city viewers might see it. The vastness of this trailer park opens up the hunting ground of The Strangers to a much bigger psychotic playground than was offered before in the first film, confined to a single house.
Naturally, with any horror film, suspension of disbelief is necessary, but there are a few points within “The Strangers: Prey at Night” that really can make you say “Oh come on!” when a character makes an exceedingly stupid move. Stupid moves are fine in moderation, and they don’t happen as often as they could here, but the bad decisions made are often truly idiotic moves that only seek to extend the film’s runtime to something worthy of releasing into theaters. This doesn’t ruin the film by any means, but the few moments of frustration I had with the writing was enough to make me throw my hands up.
“But get to the point, Hunter, is it scary?” Okay, okay, the short answer to this question is yes, it is. Surprisingly enough, though, “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” despite having a very similar plot to the first film, is a completely different film than the first installment. While “The Strangers” was a dark tale of post-Manson America and the childhood fears of a filmmaker manifesting onscreen, “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” is a much leaner, more vicious and far more stylish throwback film that’s more like an 1980s slasher film than that of the first film, and I honestly dug it. The pounding ’80s soundtrack pervading the film, the vintage zooms and fades all harken to a simpler, more voracious time of horror that was all about scares first. It’s quite a nice touch and rebranding of the franchise into something far more old school than we might’ve expected from it. It’s a surprisingly welcome change that I didn’t expect to like as much as I did.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is the film I really wanted it to be, but didn’t know I wanted. I knew I wanted a sequel to “The Strangers,” and I knew I wanted it to be good, but what I didn’t know is that I wanted a film with an entirely different tone, aesthetic and playing ground to reshape the series into something the first film didn’t do. Still, it holds that charm that “The Strangers” brought to the screen and ran with it. It’s a career high for Roberts as a filmmaker and it was certainly interesting to see this cast of actors take on a no holds barred horror film, but the end product is something that is exceedingly simple, entirely effective, impressively vicious, and undeniably frightening.
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman.
Runtime: 85 minutes
Rating: R for horror violence and terror throughout, and for language.
Aviron Pictures presents, a Fyzz Facility production, for White Comet Films, in association with Bloom and Rogue Pictures, “The Strangers: Prey at Night”