Film Review: The Strangers: Prey at Night

Beautiful but derivative.
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The Fog. Halloween. Christine. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Director Johannes Roberts wears his inspirations on his sleeve when it comes to slasher flick Strangers: Prey at Night, loosely related companion film to the 2008 film in which Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are tormented by a trio of masked killers who use a trailer park as their hunting ground. This time around, it’s parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), along with their teenage kids Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman), who must make it through the night. As a homage to horror classics of years past, The Strangers: Prey at Night is well-crafted. As a piece of original filmmaking, it and the works of Roberts’ clear icon John Carpenter aren’t even in the same trailer park.

Opening credits done in the Halloween font give us our first hint as to the derivativeness that is to come. Kinsey, sporting the dyed black hair, band t-shirt and tied-around-the-waist flannel that’s the laziest possible way to spell out “moody teen,” is being carted off to boarding school by her overwhelmed parents. Their last night of familial togetherness—the three of them, plus Kinsey’s golden-boy older brother (Lewis Pullman)—is set to take place in a trailer park managed by Cindy’s aunt and uncle. But the trailer park’s deserted in the off-season, and the poor aunt and uncle went and got murdered by three anonymous, mask-wearing killers—apparently the same people from the first film, though played by different actors. Suffice it to say, the trailer park’s new visitors’ plans have changed from “play cards and go to sleep early” to “get stalked by weapon-wielding maniacs.”

The problem—from the viewer’s perspective, not the family’s—is that the “weapon-wielding maniacs” portion of the evening takes so damned long to start. Instead, Prey at Night’s script is front-loaded with a heavy dose of Family Dynamics Theatre: Sister resents brother, mother is tough on daughter because of her own wild youth, dad is well-meaning but mostly clueless, etc. etc.

While getting to know these characters does help our emotional investment once the carnage starts to go down, Prey at Night still never really establishes anything that resembles a driving sense of momentum. Instead, we skip from set-piece to set-piece (swimming pool! car wreck! fire!), strung together in a ham-fisted manner by the age-old horror tradition of protagonists making really stupid decisions in order to advance the plot. No matter how well individual scenes work, the movie as a whole can never shake its pervasive sense of repetitive dullness.

What saves Prey at Night from being a waste of time—elevating it from “avoid at all costs” to “sure, I’ll see it if it’s on Netflix”—is that those set-pieces are gorgeously photographed and sometimes quite scary. So is the whole film, really, even if the plot and characters are less than compelling. Roberts and cinematographer Ryan Samul bring a distinct visual flair to Prey at Night that isn’t the sort of thing you necessarily expect from a decade-delayed horror sequel. All stark shadows and ominous fog (Hi again, John Carpenter), the trailer park is at once creepy and beautiful. The team behind Prey at Night is great at building tension and atmosphere—one only wishes they knew how to deliver a payoff.

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