In 2008 one of the most talked about horror films was “The Strangers”. It was fun, creepy, and depended more on subtlety than clichés and unabashed gore to get the job done. Ten years later we finally get a sequel in “The Strangers: Prey at Night” which brings back the now well-known trio of killers from the first film to stalk new victims in a larger setting. “The Strangers” wasn’t a critical darling itself but helped revolutionize the home invasion concept in horror and today is a cult classic. So, does the sequel live up to the standards of it’s predecessor? Let’s take a look with my review of “The Strangers: Prey at Night”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” escapes the single-home setting of the first film to focus on a new family stalked by a trio of killers in a deserted trailer park. The family consists of mother Cindy (“Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks), father Mike (Martin Henderson), athletic son Luke (Lewis Pullman) and rebellious daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison). After the four go on a trip to drop Kinsey off at a boarding school as the result of her misbehavior at home, they stop for the night at a relative-owned trailer park which, unbeknownst to them, now serves as a temporary home and a hunting ground for the titular strangers. Returning from the previous film are the three killers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin) and Man in the Mask aka Baghead (Damian Maffei) who make the family their newest targets. As the killers play games with their prey the family tries to outsmart the assailants and escape the trailer park to find help, but with the park acting as a maze in the dead of night escape is a lot harder than it seems.
Movies like this are both easy and hard to judge in terms of acting because there are not a lot of big stars. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” consists of a minuscule cast, the four-person family and the three-person team of killers and neither of them necessarily shine as a whole. The family, whose last name is never given, consists of “Mad Men” alumni Christina Hendricks, “The Ring” actor Martin Henderson, former child actress Bailee Madison and newcomer Lewis Pullman and overall the family is a pretty bland and typical presentation of a horror movie trope. They make up a fractured family and it’s this disjointed nature that inadvertently leads them to be the target of the film’s antagonists. Christina Hendricks gets top billing, but her character gets little development at all beyond the terrible relationship with her on-screen daughter. Martin Henderson is reduced to nothing but a good-looking nice guy father figure. Neither of them really do anything to stand out. They’re pretty generic and forgettable parental figures to say the least.
The two youngest actors however do have some substance in their portrayals. Lewis Pullman adds some attitude and personality to his big-brother role while Bailee Madison sheds her child actor persona doing what many actresses have done before her, showing her range in a horror film to hopefully open other doors. These are the true stars of the show in terms of the good guys but even They fail to shine in the long run. Pullman is actually part of some of the film’s best scenes, which I’ll get to soon, while Madison plays a typical rebel teen who is not really a damsel in distress, but she’s pretty close. These two drive a lot of hero against villain action and they handle it well so while their performances are still layered in cliché’s they at least adds SOMETHING to this story worth watching.
On the other end we have the villains, Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and Baghead. The portrayals of the villains here add little or nothing to these now iconic modern horror slashers. Dollface is reduced from an unapologetically brutal sweetheart to an outright killer and Pin-Up Girl seems to be there just to be there. She’s completely useless, performing no real successful violence compared to the other two. While in the first movie it felt like there was some complexity in these characters, all that is stripped away for this new take on the story making them out to simply be animals playing with their prey with no real complexity at all. They’re just killers…heartless killers with nothing humanizing about them and while rthat may be scary, it also makes them feel outdated.
Baghead is the exception to this flaw as he is shown to actually be concerned and caring for his fellow killers, making him out to be even more of the patriarch of this murderous family-like trio than was already implied. When his fellow killers are in danger it truly seems to disturb him, even making him more creative and aggressive in his killing style. This is great to see, but it also makes this movie feel less about the three killers as a unit and more about Baghead calling the shots which takes some of the fun out of the murder family concept. All the same Damian Maffei is a menacing antagonist and actually says a lot through eye contact and mannerisms alone as his character never says a word. Baghead contains a subtlety and presentation similar to the approach of the trio in the first film making him the standout villain of the film by far and one of the few aspects of “Prey at Night” that either matched or built on the first movie.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is kind of a mess, but it has some moments that worked. Aside from the standout villain This film does have some quality as a horror flick although its brilliance only shows up in small doses. “Prey at Night” effectively takes the action beyond the confines of a single-family home, making the trailer park setting feel like a claustrophobic maze with almost nowhere to go. Although there are times where it’s clear the filmmakers couldn’t quite figure out what to do with this backdrop, such as a few too many running in the open scenes, I enjoyed the setting in general and thought it was fun and interesting to see the titular strangers take their mayhem to a larger playground. It effectively made a big world feel small and added to the hopelessness of the victims as they tried to escape but felt trapped like literal rats replicating at least some of the quality spooks and tension of the original.
One particular scene that stands out for me is the pool encounter scene which pits big-brother Luke against Baghead in a one-on-one encounter of strength and endurance. The results of this battle leads to a beautifully shot scene that packs emotional tension and shows just how much better this movie could have been. It is by far the best part of the film complimented by a haunting overlaid soundtrack that captures the mood of the moment and even allows Lewis Pullman to pull of possibly the best single acting moment in the entire movie. Speaking of the soundtrack I’ll mention here briefly that the song choices and the use of background tracks is excellent in this film and, again, proves this movie could have been so much better with the more subtle and careful approach of the first film. There were times I found myself actually uncomfortable, in a good way, watching the movie as the soundtrack slowly builds momentum adding to the rising tension of the moment and the 80s music utilized by the strangers is both haunting and ironic as they use the tunes to taunt their victims appropriately. There’s just so much potential in this movie that is barely explored in the project, but it is there and when it shines through it makes “Prey at Night” actually pretty watchable.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The major problem is that “Prey at Night” depends way too much on predictable tropes and clichés than its own artistic potential. It would have been great to see the same care put into the pool scene be applied to the whole film, but while probably 20 to 25 percent of the movie is passable the rest is as predictable as a slasher horror film could be. The tone, story and kills are all pretty bland for the most part and could be inserted in any horror film without little effort. The subtlety and mystery of the 2088 film is ditched for a more typical genre piece which pretty much waters down everything respectable about the original. From the underutilized Pin-Up girl and poorly executed Dollface to the underdeveloped target family sporting all kinds of clichés themselves “Prey at Night” is bogged down by the same old tropes that just don’t stand out like they used to in 2008 when the genre was still trying to find new footing. The irony of this is “Prey at Night” shines when it tries to be like more sophisticated horror gems of recent years, so I guess you take the good with the bad. It’s just too bad it tries to be more like the mediocre than the masterpieces.
“Prey at Night” is also horribly paced, speeding through its first act and then spending half the second act showing us people running away or less-than-creative games being played by the killers before FINALLY kicking things into a higher gear in the third act. The problem here is that the family dynamic is summarized and shoved down our throat with minimal context and the story is poorly managed. Where gaps in the action could have been used to build on the narrative there really are times where it’s clear the filmmakers just didn’t know what to do to add to an already short movie (at an hour and 25 minutes long). The first movie used downtime to build suspense and add to the tension of the story, but this one does none of that choosing instead to show us people running away from things and the killers taunting their prey in ways that never feel smart or natural, but instead come off as forced to give the heroes a chance to get away for, you guessed it, more running. There’s not enough creative storytelling involved to make it feel complete and thus we get a film that’s horribly paced and kind of all over the place. This is probably why we gets so many bland running away moments mixed with standout scenes like the pool battle in the same movie. Minimal thought went into fitting the pieces together so instead of a great movie or a bland movie “Prey at Night” rides the middle line and ends up being worse off for it. It feels dragged out at times and rushed at other times, lacking consistency in style and approach. It’s just a mess overall despite not being a total loss.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is really nothing special. It has shades of a better film mixed in but overall, it’s a bland, typical, cliché ridden horror movie that doesn’t truly live up to the original although it does take the concept in some interesting directions. With every advancement it makes on the first film, including the setting and the Baghead character, it falters by depending too much on proven formulas taking very few risks and failing to even present a completely fleshed out story, which effects the pacing. The pool scene is to be commended, the young actors do what they can with a typically bland script, and Baghead turns out to be the most menacing of the three strangers, but these bright sides are not enough to make “Prey at Night” a good film or a superior sequel. The first movie benefited from a controlled approach and dedication to the concept whereas this film simply tries to replicate the shock value and tension of the original without building on it properly and even forsaking a few things that made the first movie work. What we have here is a sequel ten years too late that settles for simplicity over substance and continues the poor start for horror films in 2018.