Synopsis – A family of four staying at a secluded mobile home park for the night are stalked and then hunted by three masked psychopaths.
My Take – When it comes down to dissecting the horror genre, you will be surprised to know that not everyone will the same genre scary. While most still prefer to see their primary antagonist to be in their best supernatural form, a certain section (like myself) prefers to see them in flesh and bone, who prefer skip out the supernatural elements and go ahead to scare you psychologically with or without a motive. While slasher films like Friday the 13th and Halloween continue to live among their various spinoffs, reboots and sequels, one film which continues to stick out even a decade after its release is the Bryan Bertino directed film, The Strangers. Released in the summer of 2008, the film became a runaway hit back in 2008 with its fresh and terrifying spin on the home invasion horror subgenre, and it also paved the way for the low budget but effective horror cinema we’ve been seeing lately. With arresting visuals, an unusual patience for long takes, and an alarming plausibility to made the story of masked intruders invading an isolated country home exceptionally disturbing. While the sequel helmed by director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down), like most follow ups doesn’t match the quality of the original, yet works as a standalone entertaining horror film worth a watch. The story follows Kinsey (Bailee Madison), a troubled young teenager, who due to her habit of getting into trouble with the bad crowd is now being shipped off to boarding school. Setting off on a road trip unwillingly with her parents, Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) and elder brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman), Kinsley finds herself at a stopover at Cindy’s elderly aunt and uncle, who operate a mobile home motel in the middle of nowhere.
However, when they arrive at the park, no one is apparently home, and a note is left for them telling them to let themselves into their trailer. After a strange girl comes knocking at the door, multiple times, looking for someone they don’t know, Cindy and Mike become suspicious for their family’s safety. Their fears turn out to be justified, as they soon find themselves under vicious attack, from three masked strangers, the Man in Burlap Mask (Damian Maffei), Dollface (Emma Bellomy), and Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin), who proceed to chase, smash and slash the unsuspecting family unit hereby turning their quick overnight stay into the longest/possibly last night of their lives. From the opening minutes, it’s obvious that this sequel is a more formalist piece of work than its predecessor, with which it doesn’t share much apart from the three masked killers with no motive. Regardless of whether you’ve seen the original film, and regardless of whether you liked it or not, this film does a dang good job of staying true to the original’s roots while forging its own identity. Bryan Bertino, the writer-director of the first, co-wrote this one with Ben Ketai; but Johannes Roberts sits in the director’s chair this time and adds his own unique visual stamp while also wearing his heart for John Carpenter films very much on his bloodied sleeves. As the premises follows the basic setup of its predecessor with protagonists on edge and at odds before the killers even arrive, but while it doubles the potential victim pool it cuts in half our empathy and concern for them. The film’s first fifty minutes or so are a generic and rushed affair, albeit happily one without a reliance on music stingers for scares, but director Johannes Roberts finally brings it all to life as soon as the family arrives. The film doesn’t pull any punches in regards to getting the horror themes started, as the looming threat of death keeps the film at a good pace, almost like the most dangerous game coming to life with a soap opera twist. As the “heroes” try to move amidst the maze of trailers, the ever-looming dread lurking in the shadows of the killers hunting their prey. This fast pace keeps the film moving, and due to a wise decision to not get too ingrained in the horror elements, the film is over pretty quickly. What’s surprising here is that from the get, director Roberts abandons all pretense of heightening his horror film with dramatic subtexts and characters with more than one dimension – this is midnight film fare through and through. The film’s lead family is as thin as wallpaper, giving talented actors like Hendricks and Henderson precious little to do besides play concerned mom and dad to their more resourceful moppets. Pullman, as the jock son of the family, is a useful idiot who gets a few licks in, but it’s Madison who gets the lion’s share of righteous moments. Of the four, she gets the most to work with as she flees and outwits the killers, but of course she is not Laurie Strode. With a film like this one, we know what we want as viewers, we want to see the creepy killers stalk and terrorize an innocent family, and I know that sounds messed up, but it’s just a film, so this family isn’t actually harmed.
Anyway, we want to witness this sort of messed thing because it’s scary and creepy in a way that lingers. Also, unlike most slasher flicks, this film has protagonists who realize they can actually resist being murdered, along with the antagonists discovering that they’re every bit as human in both their strengths and weaknesses. This fresh approach creeps onscreen leaving viewers unsure what will happen and who will live, and the action even finds room to breathe with Christine-inspired vehicular fun. Scenes move in fresh directions, outcomes vary greatly from ones you’re sure are coming, and you might even find yourself cheering for characters you previously disliked. That’s a long way from the somber experience of the first film. You may also notice that certain scenes from the original film have been replicated for greater impact, even though, the two films share some similarities, and they remain largely different based on their respective settings. While the 2008 film emphasized claustrophobia because the bedlam occurred in a ranch house in the woods, the hysterics in the sequel are not confined to one house. Instead, the pandemonium rages within an isolated trailer park where only the manager and his wife remain during the off-season, ostensibly, the two films take place after dark, and the predators eventually sabotage all means of communication. Is it scary? The answer to that is surprisingly yes, but more so in how creepy the film is. The realism of how people can go crazy and take pleasure in death to set such an elaborate trap gets to me, the chills that such sickness exists to this manner is the biggest element. As the feeling of being stranded sets in, the film does a nice job throwing some jump scares into the mix to try and keep you on edge. So yeah, it has factors that scary. Director Roberts also delivers a showstopper sequence involving a pool, neon lights, and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that feels like one you’ll still remember come year’s end. He uses 80s music throughout the film, but here it feels beautifully in sync with the visuals onscreen. The upbeat music and the lit-up fake flamingos and palm trees are in complete contrast to the carnage. The action, suspense, and sensory overload of the scene create a thrilling genre cocktail that leaves you gasping for more. However, surprisingly what the film lacks in comparison to the original was the complete dread, suspense and unease. In the original, it felt as though director Bertino and his team were able to place things within the frame – with no effort. Figures would almost appear and it never felt like as were being set up. In the sequel, every time a shot had a large open space to the side of the main action, you knew that you should be looking for something. While that’s kind of fun as some sort of Where’s Waldo game, it also feels like a bit of transparent trickery, as the original was effortless, the obvious tricks here seem like they’re trying too hard. As for the performances, keeping in mind the genre, it’s quite adequate. As their character histories are pretty minimal, so we don’t get much from the performances in that character development vein, but when the actors need to react to the horror unfolding around them – you’ll totally buy it. Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Lewis Pullman and Bailee Madison, all pitch in good performances. The titular antagonists played by Damian Maffei, Emma Bellomy and Lea Enslin don’t have much to do but look and act terrifying, which they obviously do well. On the whole, ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night‘ is a reasonably enjoyable and effective slasher flick that might not please all fans of the original, but paves a new and exciting new path for the franchise.
Directed – Johannes Roberts
Rated – R
Run Time – 85 minutes