Early this week, I was invited to an advanced screening of The Strangers: Prey at Night. I was excited, mainly because I enjoyed 2008’s home invasion horror thriller The Strangers, back before I knew I was a horror fan. In fact, The Strangers was one of the movies that made me realize I did like horror movies after all, so it’s always had a special place in my cold, black heart.
However, The Strangers is far from a perfect movie. Upon watching it for the second time, I have wondered what it would have been like with better writing, among other things.
The news of a sequel ten years after the fact was exciting, if for no other reason than home invasion movies scare the crap out of me. There was a part of me that was curious to see if the sequel would improve upon the original’s shortcomings…or merely rehash the same old stuff.
Oh, but it was worse than that. The Strangers: Prey at Night was disappointing. I was not looking for a socially-conscious horror movie going into The Strangers, but dammit, I wanted an entertaining and skilled effort. And I don’t think that is too much to ask!
Apparently, it was. I wish I’d had some wine to drink.
But before I get into all that, let me first point out what I liked about the film, which showed real improvement over certain aspects of the first film.
The plot is pretty much the same set up as the original. Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask (I prefer to think of him as a cross between Scarecrow from Batman Begins and the killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown) pick their victims for a night of murderous fun, settling on a vacationing family of four. Mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks), father as Mike (Martin Henderson), sweet son Luke (Lewis Pullman), and struggling daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) are on their way to a spend time at their family’s vacation rental trailer park by a lake. Of course, things don’t go as planned because the Strangers show up and wreak havoc.
I have to give credit to the characterization present in The Strangers: Prey at Night. The victims, a whole family, were fleshed out with backgrounds and motivations and emotions other than mere survival, like real people! I saw quirks, interactions, tender moments, and little flashes of their fears and insecurities before the horror, which made the characters and the film much more compelling and entertaining. There was even more characterization for the Strangers themselves, which was great! I wanted to see more about the strangers and how they interact as a group, but this aspect is the least of the film’s problems.
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more the film did for its characters. I actually cared about these characters and felt more invested in them than I did for the couple in The Strangers (I didn’t want to see them die; I just didn’t feel anything for those two cardboard cutouts).
As such, the acting in The Strangers: Prey at Night, was miles better than in The Strangers. Who knew that giving actors stronger material pays dividends in the form of more realistic and nuanced performances? Especially when you hire great actors like Christina Hendricks?
Again, the characters felt like real people, and the actors brought a lot of unexpected emotional impact to certain scenes that might have come off as corny or overwrought with a lesser cast. Sure, not everything was well done, but again, this was such a welcome improvement.
I also liked the myriad of conscious references and homages offered up to 1980s slashers. No doubt a large part of this decision is based on the popularity of Stranger Things and the resulting obsession with all things 80s, but I don’t mind. Call me sentimental, nostalgic, whatever; I enjoyed it.
Up until a point.
The first half of the film handled its influences with a steady hand. An ironic soundtrack of peppy 80s pop music to set scenes and create unease. Liberal but not overwhelming use of classic slasher camera work like zoom, POV, and pan shots. A clever reimagining of the classic slasher camp setting. And, of course, an homage to the Final Girl. I enjoyed all of that. Good job so far.
The first two acts did a lot of good work to build towards a solid, crowd-pleasing resolution only to stumble along the way and, eventually, fall completely on its face by the end. Alas, The Strangers: Prey at Night, did not trust its own ability to create and sustain suspense. The movie decided that it wasn’t big, crazy, or shocking enough, and ceded ground to plot holes too big to ignore and characters too stupid to function.
I was so frustrated to see it completely waste all its early success, all its creepy fun and heart-pounding tension. The bathroom scene with Christina Hendricks? Good stuff! The gut-punch of a scene with the dad in the minivan? Even better! That pool scene full of neon and desperation? Perhaps the best part of the movie! Why waste them?
Why would you undercut the explosive scene between Scarecrow-Stranger and our juvenile delinquent, dedicated Ramones fan Final Girl? That good stuff! It was entertaining! The whole movie theater cheered when that happened! Why, after those high points, would you then defy the entire point of your movie and run headlong into the arms of a stale genre trope?
The whole premise of the Strangers as characters is that they are entirely possible in the real world. Unfortunately, acts of senseless violence and murder happen all the time, and for reasons we will never know. For no other motivation but that they felt like it, three individuals could try and succeed at torturing and killing people they’ve never met before.
For all our attempts to make the world safer and to protect ourselves, it is entirely possible in this messed up world we live in that three people could just decide to murder you one day. Neither decency, minding your business, nor staying in your house will protect you. You might still come face to face with a murdering psychopath.
But inherent in this premise, which seeks to tear down the delusions and misconceptions we have about our relative safety, is that if victims have to play by the rules of the real world, so too do the Strangers themselves. Because they are people. Not supernatural beings. Not inhuman monsters. They are people just like us.
Granted, The Strangers had a lot of problems with treating its villains as flesh and blood people. There were a lot of scenes where it seemed like the director wanted them to pop up over here or peek out over there, without any rhyme or reason to their actual movements around the property. The Strangers: Prey at Night has the same problem. It did, however, manage to stay on this side of disbelief for most of the movie, despite the questionable propensity of the Strangers to magically pop up out of nowhere.
Given the attempts at brutal realism early on, why then does The Strangers: Prey At Night seek to make their villains nearly indestructible, especially at the end, where it tried to throw out as many indestructible villain fake-outs as it could? It undermines the very kind of horror upon which the film is predicated.
(And then to culminate in reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I cannot even! First, weren’t y’all trying to pay homage to 80s slashers? Don’t you know The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was from the 70s and, while hugely influential on future slashers, is not really considered a slasher? And secondly, how dare you bring The Texas Chainsaw Massacre into this mess?!?!)
And then there’s the stupidity! The characters were just so stupid at times! They did things that didn’t seem realistic. I’m not talking about having a rational reaction to being attached since most people cannot remain logical under such circumstances—I’m talking about character consistency. There were very significant points where characters acted in ways that a terrified, adrenaline-fueled person would not act. I found it painfully clear that these instances were due to the filmmakers trying to shoehorn a particular outcome while avoiding the work to plot it correctly.
Because here’s the thing about ANY story: if it’s your movie, then you’re in charge of setting the audience’s expectations, and regardless of subject matter or aim. You have the first 10-15 minutes where you get to set the rules for everything that comes later, and the best part is that the audience is willing to listen to what you have to say. We believe you. We’ll stick around to see where this goes.
Therefore, you must be careful when you try to “subvert audience expectations” that you don’t actually end up changing the rules YOU SET because that shit is a cheap, lazy tactic. You are not slick for trying it. You are not daring or edgy; you are untrustworthy as a storyteller.
All in all, it felt like The Strangers: Prey at Night squandered its chance to be better than the original. Again, I did not expect this film to give me a new type of horror experience or open my eyes to a social ill, but I did expect it to entertain me as a taut horror/thriller. I wanted to be unsettled and scared. It started off on track but then went off the rails.
And now, I just keep thinking about the fun, disturbing slasher it could have been.