Review: The Strangers: Prey At Night

Director: Johannes Roberts

Stars: Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman

Ten years ago, Brian Bertino’s home invasion horror movie The Strangers caught justified attention for its sleek minimalism and its abrupt and nihilistic conclusion. Now seems like a suspicious time to mount a sequel. The first film has long cooled off and everyone’s pretty much moved on. Yet so has the series. Despite looking like its going to be a needless retread, The Strangers: Prey At Night does mix things up a bit. For starters, there isn’t even a home to invade.

Bertino is back as co-author of this piece, but directing duties are handed over to Johannes Roberts, who does a damned fine job of replicating the aesthetic already established. The film is beholden not just to Bertino’s but to the movies that inspired it from the 1980’s. Cue lots of long, slow, voyeuristic zooms and plenty of billowing atmospheric mist. The score even sounds like a remix of John Carpenter’s tinkling work from The Fog.

And then there’s the switching of genres. Or, rather, subgenres. With no home to invade, The Strangers: Prey At Night reveals itself as a gung-ho slasher, a throwback designed to sate horror fans first and foremost. The casual and the curious might not respond so receptively.

Meet Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), parents of teenagers Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman). Kinsey’s recently had a decline in grades and an upsurge in truancy and is soon to be packed off to boarding school, which she resents, obviously. For reasons that are never really made clear (and, in this arena, aren’t even necessary), the family have decided to take a vacation at an all-but-abandoned lakeside camp site. In the off-season.

Yeah, those alarm bells should be ringing.

Whaddaya know, thanks to a cold open we know that Dollface, Sackhead and Pin-Up Girl are already on site, so its only a matter of time before they start with their tricks on this hapless foursome. But where Liv Tyler had an expansive modern home to cower in, the ‘cosy’ trailer that this film’s family occupy isn’t going to last them very long. No, the whole camp quickly becomes a macabre playing field. And as family members flee in all directions, the switch to slasher-mode firmly asserts itself.

Slasher movies have as many rules to obey as subvert. Prey At Night doesn’t feel as smart as its predecessor, but its bare-bones approach to a subgenre long rejected by mainstream horror does produce some visceral thrills. The stripped down functionality of Roberts’ film is its saving grace. Approached with the right mindset, this is a mean little movie whose tropes – both positive and negative – are part and parcel of the deal. Yes, characters frequently make boneheaded decisions, but this in itself is, in its own way, a staple of the summer camp slasher. One might hope for more, sure, but bemoaning panic-stricken idiocy at this stage is a fruitless fight. Get over it, basically.

This is a gory movie, one that pushes its 15 certificate about as far as it can reasonably go. Horror sequels are prone to excess in an effort to ‘outdo’ their forbearers, often unnecessarily. You can call some of what happens here gratuitous and have a point. But the other side of that is recognising that this, again, is an established and often times beloved trope of the slasher movie. And that’s perhaps the key thing here. Prey At Night is a horror movie for a certain type of horror fan. Slasher fans know that a lot of the movies they cherish are bad, or at least extremely faulty. But those faults, that badness… its part of what makes them the movies they are.

Maybe Prey At Night uses this idea as a get-out-of-jail-free card. In a sense its critic-proof. Like all tawdry slasher movies, it’s never going to be respected, its aggregator scores will almost certainly be low. It won’t bother the imdb top 250 (or 2,500 or 25,000). I shrug. As much as one can, I enjoyed this punchy, bloody, fairly stupid little flick. It isn’t trying to say anything. It doesn’t have levels. It just wants to make you worried. Sometimes it even wants to make you smirk. Occasionally, it wants you to roll your eyes. That’s all this is; a series of moments that ask you simply to react. It’s a ghost train. A fairground ride. A campfire story that spuriously claims to be based on a true story.

And, as it goes, it’s a fairly stylish one. It absolutely looks the business. Plus, and this is not for nothing when it comes to slashers, it has one or two pretty memorable set pieces. This might sound like faint praise, but honestly, for fans this is all you really need. To a certain audience, this will be well received.

Everyone else will be left scratching their heads. I can see this being one of my guilty pleasures this year. A horror movie for when the last thing I want to do is think. That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but its what I’ve got. Smile knowingly at the extremely on-the-nose Texas Chain Saw Massacre homage in the third act, roll your eyes at the pointless coda. Job done.

Score:  3

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