Bryan Bertino’s 2008 stunner The Strangers struck quite a nerve with genre fans, but I think its impact was felt more in people like me who are less devoted to it. The reason for it was simple: there was simply no rhyme or reason to the terror these masked killers were inflicting on poor Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. The senselessness of it was itself blood-curdling, made worse by the glee they took in drawing out the experience. Was there violence? Absolutely, but by the time it arrived you almost welcomed it. A sequel was announced soon after but nothing ever happened, and now a full decade later we have The Strangers: Prey at Night, not so much a sequel but a continuation that is more than worth the wait.
Directed by Johannes Roberts, who scored a sleeper smash with last summer’s shark thriller 47 Meters Down, the film doesn’t bother catching us up with prior events. And who would want it to, anyway? We know what’s going down here. Three masked assailants, two women in creepy doll masks and one bruiser in a burlap sap, find their latest victims in an abandoned RV park in the middle of nowhere. The prey are a family of four who, at least for a while, think the worst of their problems is dropping daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) off at boarding school. Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson are parents Cindy and Mike, with Lewis Pullman (You can tell he’s Bill’s son instantly) as Kinsey’s older brother, Luke, clearly the favored child. They go through the typical rigmarole of family squabbles that we’re meant to relate to, but it isn’t long before they have much bigger concerns.
“Is Tamara home?”
Fans of the first movie will know those words aren’t just somebody who went to the wrong address, and they’ll likely get the same sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach as they had the first time they heard it. When the mysterious girl’s query is rebuffed, only for her to return moments later, it’s already too late for the family to do anything. The chase is on.
The Strangers movies have never been about gore and they aren’t about body count. Prey at Night only has a handful of characters and its predecessor had even fewer. Building up dread and disorienting the audience are its greatest weapons and Roberts proves incredibly effective. Cinematographer Ryan Samuel, a frequent collaborator of Jim Mickle’s (Cold in July), understandably gives the film a lo-fi 1980s look shrouded in darkness. He uses the cover of night and uncertain dimensions of the already-ominous killing field to keep the audience, and the killers’ prey, all turned upside down. While Roberts does a pretty good job incorporating the style Bertino (now just the screenwriter) brought in 2008, he has a couple of inspired moments of individual brilliance. An edge-of-your-seat sequence at a swimming pool, set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, has a surprisingly intense, shocking brawl, an unexpected moment of heroism, and some seriously slick camerawork.
Heroism is something we didn’t really get a lot of in the first film but this one finds the victims at least putting up a fight against their tormentors. It’s an interesting move that gives this sequel a bit of breathing room from its predecessor. Otherwise there aren’t a lot of surprises here. The killers seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once, while the targets make bone-headed, illogical decisions. You’ll laugh at the number of times Kinsey goes somewhere she shouldn’t, all alone, only to have it be a really dumb move. But hey, that’s what these movies do. We laugh at the tropes but we also love them. The dumbest insult, which I’ve already heard in regards to this film, is that the characters make stupid mistakes all of the time.
Just a note: If I’m ever chased by a giant ax-wielding guy in a burlap mask, I’m liable to make a wrong turn somewhere. Or trip and fall. Or hit my head on a low hanging branch. Just sayin’.
The cast are all solid, but Bailee Madison has the goods to be a budding scream queen. She’s got enough experience already, having previously starred in Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at a younger age. If there’s a star of this film it’s her, otherwise the praise falls on Roberts’ direction and Bertino’s simple, effective plotting that packs a lot of scares in just 80 minutes. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another ten years for The Strangers to go hunting again.