Believe it or not, The Strangers (2008) was the first R-Rated film I ever saw in theatres.
I was 12, and it left me absolutely traumatized.
Now, at the ripe old age of 22, I sat down to watch The Strangers: Prey At Night, the sequel to the film that, just a decade ago, haunted my nightmares for weeks. I had expected more of the same: jump-scares a-plenty, jarring musical stings, and a bleak, washed-out aesthetic.
What I got instead is the cool, edgy, indie-inspired film that is Johannes Roberts’s The Strangers: Prey At Night.
My favorite thing about this film is that it is completely different from its predecessor. That is not to say I did not enjoy the original; I did, but I always appreciate a sequel that tries to do something bold and different with its source material.
After a deliciously creepy prologue starring our titular masked-maniacs, we switch perspectives to follow a family who is moving to a small trailer park for the summer.
The youngest child of the bunch, Kinsey (played with charming rebelliousness by Bailee Madison), is being shipped off to boarding school for her bad behavior. Her parents (Christina Hendricks as Cindy/”Mom”, and Martin Henderson as Mike/”Dad”) and brother (a benignly charming Lewis Pullman as Luke), are all going to be living together in a cramped trailer, close to where Kinsey will be attending school.
The first quarter of this film succeeds at being a fairly effective family drama. We grow to care about these characters, even while knowing that they will, sooner rather than later, be menaced by the killers, whose presence you will feel in every dark corner as you wait for the shoe-drop moment.
These early scenes suffer from some obvious cliches (Rebellious Young Daughter/Overly-Happy Prologue to Ultimately Horrifying Film), but they can be forgiven, because the actors, particularly Madison, are strong and earnest enough to make it feel genuine.
And then, as you knew it would, the ‘other shoe’ drops hard.
There is no great musical spike to accompany the first assault, no jumpscare, no shaky camera. One of the masked killers (Emma Bellomy, who excellently portrays the particularly sadistic “Dollface”), simply walks out of the darkness, a butcher-knife in hand.
What follows is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most effective survival-horror film since 2015’s Green Room.
While the original The Strangers presented the killers as pseudo-supernatural jumpscare engines, this new film finds the horror in their undeniable humanity. They are less shadowed, quicker to speak, and, frankly, clumsier. They are not infallible apex predators, they are just…people.
And that is far more terrifying than any ghost or ghoul could ever hope to be.
This is best demonstrated by this film’s brilliant use of music. I am a sucker for any film that uses its soundtrack in a cool, creative way, and this is a movie that does just that and more. The Strangers: Prey At Night knows when to ramp up the music, and when to pull it away.
The murderers have a pension for ’80s pop songs, which the film uses with devilishly gleeful irony. Even the movie’s surprisingly bright, saturated color palate reflects the perverse peppiness of the killers’ tastes. The scariest scenes in this film are set not to churning orchestral scores, but to such gems as Kim Wilde’s Kids In America.
In the moments of highest tension, the killers choose the soundtrack, and you’re stuck with whatever they feel like listening to.
It’s scary, because it’s jarringly realistic.
Another great thing about this film, is that it unabashedly portrays the terrible banality of The Strangers’ evil. The scenes where they take characters’ lives are shot with a kind of bland matter-of-fact quality, making the viewer feel almost voyeuristic, almost complicit.
We watch from a great distance as a man relentlessly chases a child with a fire axe; we watch from the back seat when a killer shoves an ice-pick through someone’s windpipe after spending 30 uncut seconds finding just the right song on the radio. The camera doesn’t record, it lingers.
The film doesn’t glorify the Strangers’ violence, it normalizes it.
As far as our protagonists are concerned, their fear and panic are portrayed with effective honesty. When they have to fight the Strangers, the confrontations do not feel polished and choreographed. They have the brutal, almost slapstick feel of real fights.
It’s not pretty, and it shouldn’t be.
Bailee Madison is the standout, her moments of unabashed panic making my heart-rate escalate. Yet, even when terrified, her character is a survivor. She’d make any classic Scream Queen proud.
The weakest link, sadly, is Martin Henderson, who just can’t quite sell his terror as well as the others. He’s not a bad actor, per se, but his portrayal of a man in extremis never feels extreme enough.
The Strangers: Prey At Night has its flaws. It is, at times, hard to reconcile why our protagonists choose to look around that dark corner rather than just running for their lives. And the killers seem to be almost too good at staying one-step-ahead of their prey. It takes away some of the believably from a film which builds most of its horror from being realistic.
But, for all its flaws, it’s fair to say The Strangers: Prey At Night exceeded all my expectations. It is subversive, creative, and unafraid to be different.
And that is exactly what a horror film should be.
(SCORE: 4 out of 5 Stars)