Movie Review: "The Strangers: Prey at Night" (2018)
"Because you were home......."
It was those words, delivered with chilling vacancy & casual indifference that took an average (but very well executed) 2008 suspense thriller and elevated it to cult status. Now, don't get me wrong- I really like Bryan Bertino's The Strangers. It does what it is supposed to do and does it well. Liv "Aerosmith Jr." Tyler and Scott Speedman perform well in a film that tends to be more than a bit Hitchcock in what is almost a single-act play format. There's nothing wrong with that. Quite the contrary.
However, I always wanted something more from that movie. The home invasion angle can be done Panic Room style, with all of the accompanying signs of "manageable terror", or you can make it a horror film and go for the throat. I was pleasantly surprised by the movie that was recommended to me by one of our trusted regulars at Blockbuster back in the good old days of the dying video store. Still, I wanted more......
Enter the 2018 horror film, The Strangers: Prey at Night.
Yes, I said horror film. This one is unabashedly a horror film, and thank God for it! When asked to summarize my experience with this movie in a nutshell that is what I will say. The first outing is a thriller; this one is a horror film with a bloodline. Allow me to expound on that just a bit.
The story is one of a family this time. Mom (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men) and Dad (Martin Henderson, Greys Anatomy) are very concerned about their rebellious daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison, Bridge to Terabithia). They are so concerned, in fact, that they are taking her off to boarding school to get her off of their hands and get her the help that she needs. Along for the ride on this tense little family trip is Kinsey's older brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman, Battle of the Sexes). This clearly isn't going to be a fun family road trip, but Mom & Dad are trying to make the best of it. They decide to stop for the night at Gatlin Lake, an RV/Trailer park owned by Mom's Uncle Marvin. It's kind of odd that they can't get a hold of good old Uncle Marvin, though....
They arrive to find the aforementioned Uncle Marvin nowhere in sight, but there is a key for trailer #47 and a handwritten note. As they drive through the park they comment on how deserted it is, being out of tourist season and all. When they arrive you see that their mailbox has a smiley face painted on it.
I'm no expert, but that looks like marking to me. Just sayin'.
The setup screams horror movie, and that was (honestly) where I started to smile. Even the name of the park was a little homage (can you say Children of the Corn?). Speaking of homages, you don't have to be a hardcore horror nut to spot a couple of other (heavier handed) homages in the third act of this movie- namely Stephen King's Christine & The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Structurally, this movie spends half it's time lulling you into a bit of a false sense of security. It does things exactly like the first film, and you're starting to think that you've seen this one before and maybe it's just going to be a lazy carbon copy of it's predecessor. Once the crowd gets thinned out a little, though.....it smiles and shows it's dirty, jagged teeth.
The gore that you want to see is there without being over the top or campy. The sense of menace is solid, and the "jump scares" don't come off as cheap and contrived. I was startled and unnerved a couple of times, & that is (for me, at least) a couple of times more than I usually am in just about any movie. The Strangers: Prey at Night manages this while sticking to the roots of what worked in the first film: shot framing of unseen background menace, excellent imagery in still-frame style, & stellar use of music in stalking and killing scenes.
You know how some songs become embedded in your brain as forever being identified with a certain movie (think "Freebird" in The Devil's Rejects or "Son of a Preacher Man" in Pulp Fiction)?Well, now there is a movie for Bonnie Tyler's 80's guilty pleasure "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to be linked to. It wasn't just that song, though. The entire movie makes smart usage of well-placed musical interludes. I'm a sucker for death during a classic, cheesy song. Call me a big old softie!
Coincidentally, that song is one that I belt out at full volume when it's on, but I digress.
The social commentary is right there at the fore, as well. We are living in a day and age where increasingly nasty things happen for no viable reason whatsoever. The concept of a common moral high ground grows more and more vague. The Man in the Mask, Dollface, & Pinup Girl are the embodiment of that growing malaise. They're doing it because they can, because it feels good, because you were home, because..........WHY NOT?
Kudos to director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) for developing the characters and storytelling process as the series grows up. It's not a surprise to the audience this time around. There is resistance. These kids have teeth as well. If the first one had you screaming at the bleakness of it all, then you will get your rocks off on this one. It's satisfying, violent, & vengeful.
IMDB has it at an average 5.9/10 (with 2,499 ratings). Rotten Tomatoes gives it 37% rotten (I was surprised by that one). It has underperformed at the box office, but let's face it: real horror will continue to get a bad rap. I think this is one of those movies that will garner a bigger audience over time and by word of mouth. It'll kill (pun intended) on streaming.