THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT Review
Director: Johannes Roberts
Look, THE STRANGERS is good. Coming out in 2008 after a long decade or so of franchise exhaustion, intermittently successful East Asian adaptations, and middling mid-budget studio projects, Bryan Bertino’s debut feature told a simple story effectively, barely bothering with plot or dialogue and offering a FUNNY GAMES-esque layer of upsetting cynicism and unwarranted violence. In many ways comparable to the ruthlessly efficient BLUE RUIN in terms of larger genre discourse, it was also, unfortunately, a strong candidate for an example of lightning never striking twice. Alas, while functional, THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is a sequel that nobody really anticipated or wanted, and proves just that.
This time around we pick up with Kinsey (Bailee Madison), a huffy teenage ne’er-do-well who is being carted off to boarding school for her behavioral discrepancies. In an effort to ease the family tension, mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and father Mike (Martin Henderson) have decided to send her off with a family vacation at a remote, off-season lake resort, bringing brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) along for the ride. As they arrive, they take note of the fact that their Uncle Marv isn’t there to great them as planned, but don’t take too much note of it. That is, until they discover Uncle Marv’s horribly mutilated body, with Dollface, Man in the Mask, and Pin-Up Girl jonesing for another round of indiscriminate carnage not soon after.
One Perfect Shot: The “Hi Mailman!” Scene from Spongebob
I do have to commend THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT for having more vitality than it could have. While the film feels conceptually tired considering there’s virtually nothing new you can add to the original’s formula, Johannes Roberts actually manages to avoid having it seem like an entirely lazy and detached cash-grab. It’s well-lit and produced, surprisingly high-budget in terms of its gore effects and pyrotechnics, and while the aggressive levels of nostalgic ‘80s “homage” are as exhausting as they ever are, they at least contribute to some visually engaging set pieces and a bitchin’ synthpop soundtrack. This is perhaps best exemplified by a scene late in the film, where Luke and Man in the Mask struggle to one-up each other in a swimming pool, surrounded by neon palm trees with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blaring all the while—it’s overblown and ridiculous as all Hell, but undeniably one of the more fun slasher scenes of recent history.
And yet, even though the acting is similarly slightly better than it has to be, Christina Hendricks in particular promising a missed career as a scream queen, PREY AT NIGHT is just . . . there. This is in large part due to a glacially paced first act, and with a runtime of less than 90 minutes, “glacially paced” is a death sentence. Especially considering this is our second time around the merry-go-round, we know exactly what is going to happen to the family we’re introduced to, which makes the half-baked attempts at giving them a backstory all the more flaccid. I know, I know, you’ll typically hear complaints from me that go the other direction, but the one thing that franchise deep-dives do right is switching the focus of our attention on the killer, leading lambs to the slaughter and entertaining through just how they’ll be killed. Considering how hum-drum the tension is that’s motivating the trip to the lake, there is no reason to give us so many scenes of Kinsey flipping off her family members and wandering off alone in an effort to inject an undercurrent of tension.
While I think it would have been equally unwise to try to give more motivation to the Strangers, they also have lost a bit of their intimidation factor, as the sequel gives them slightly too much of a playground to explore. THE STRANGERS is as successful as it is because of its basis in a home invasion thriller, subverting the expectation of the home as a safe haven and turning every familiar nook and cranny into a new potential hotbed of terror. PREY AT NIGHT isn’t offensively misguided in its desires to let everyone run a little more amok, but it still feels less contained and less controlled as a result, and I can’t really think of a good reason everyone just didn’t sprint for the exit as soon as danger was afoot. As for the characters themselves, there is a polarizing element underfoot that implies that Man in the Mask is taking a page out of the Voorhees Handbook and existing as an unkillable juggernaut. This doesn’t dry the ink on a verdict either way for me, as that’s par for the course as far as slashers are concerned and the true travesty is the virtual absence of Pin-Up Girl, but it is another ham-fisted example of Referencing that hangs like a fog over the entire affair.
Heeeeeeere’s EDM act Marshmello!
With READY PLAYER ONE on the horizon we are truly reaching peak capacity of rose-tinted navel-gazing, and PREY AT NIGHT’s clear desire to only exist within the context of its predecessors is a bizarre choice. It’s a film that begs comparisons to a laundry list of moody ‘80s hack-’em-ups, mildly unfavorable ones at that, and it truly had no reason to. While heavy-handed political allegory can be equally as groan-inducing, it seems like a missed opportunity to have not tried to say, well, something considering our current social climate. With the original inspiring honest-to-goodness discourse about its refutation of Bush-era pastoralism, it’s shitting the bed to bludgeon us over the head again and again with the sights and sounds of decades past.
I can’t imagine you were really expecting much, and if you were interested you likely already saw it this opening weekend, but wait for PREY AT NIGHT to hit streaming services. It’s not cancerously awful, and the pool scene alone is probably worth a Redbox rental fee, if not a $15 movie ticket, but you’re much better off catching up on the innumerable films whose influence this wears on its sleeve. Let’s let sleeping dogs lie and not give this the franchise treatment, please? But Man in the Mask, if you want to DJ any house parties in the future, let me know.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend