No strangers were harmed in the making of this motion picture
On unfortunate encores, familiar music, and the obligations of being in the slasher business
The Strangers: Prey at Night Aviron Pictures
Director: Johannes Roberts
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai
Starring: Bailee Madison, Christina Hendricks, Lewis Pullman, Martin Henderson, Damian Maffei and Emma Bellomy
Rated R / 1 hour, 25 minutes / 2.35:1
March 9, 2018
(out of four)
The problem with the strangers, from The Strangers, is that they're stars now. And when you're stars, you get another movie. And when you get another movie, you've got different obligations.
Different obligations and different rules. The first time we had the pleasure of meeting them, they were merely a shadow in the distance, a knock at the door. The weight of their presence stemmed from the simple fact that they didn't belong there, in that countryside, outside that window, looking in on that nice couple. Inside that living room. They were a silent, unwavering inexplicability; the threat they presented felt perpetually surreal, up to and including the moment when they finally put their weapons to good, bloody use.
Officially, that's what earned them their slasher bonafides. But up until then, they were mere watchers in the woods, not yet actual slashers. They lurked and hovered, their masks the stoic expressions of their painstaking patience. But now that they've gone and done it, they have reputations to uphold, body counts to add up, niches to carve. They're not amateurs anymore; they have a whole body of work to think about now.
Pity, they would have been such good one-hit wonders. Getting franchised strips them of the very thing that made them most interesting. They return in The Strangers: Prey at Night without the eerie anomalous quality that made them such an effective menace the first time around. In its place is a perfunctory requirement to kill. These masked goons' star status has bestowed them with newfound supernatural powers, so they spend the film not just killing with impunity but inexplicably surviving as well. This is a great slasher tradition, yes ... except Bryan Bertino's original film drew its power in part from its sense of normalcy, with the insinuation that his trio of assailants were ostensibly ordinary people - inconspicuous, mortal - who stalked and killed a couple of people just for the hell of it. In fact, even "for the hell of it" suggests more rationale than the movie was willing to offer. "Because you were home" is all the explanation we actually got.
The lasting impression was a sense of almost absurdist nihilism, left by figures of death who were resolutely not mythological in nature, or part of any quasi-supernatural horror tradition. They may have worn masks like Michael Myers, and they may have enjoyed standing eerily still at a watchful distance like Michael Myers, but that doesn't mean they operated by the same rules as Michael Myers. Or, at least, they didn't. In Prey at Night, even exploding in front of our eyes isn't enough to keep a Stranger down.
And speaking of John Carpenter: this film features Adrian Johnston's original score, which is not a ripoff of The Fog's score in the same way that Vanilla Ice's Ice Ice Baby is not a ripoff of Under Pressure's baseline. Incidentally or not, that frame of reference only further welds Prey at Night's title characters to an otherworldly cinematic context in which they don't fundamentally belong. The "based on true events" title card that opens the film reinforces this incongruity. Our masked stalkers - Dollface, Pin-Up and Basically Scarecrow - being more geographically ubiquitous (one of them is always hiding in the car, or outside the window, or behind that tree, no matter how much the film spreads its cast of characters around) and unreasonably difficult to permanently harm only makes them seem more tedious, more dull.
Perhaps their certainty that they'll get to keep on doing what they do, for as long as producers will pay to have them do it, is why their target strategy seems so short-sighted. The film gives them something of a home base - a modest trailer park seemingly used for summer camps and lakeside vacations - but our murdering pals make the decision to kill the proprietors right away and leave the bodies to be found by their relatives (who are on their way for a visit). Surely the better business strategy would be to take over as the proprietors - in such an out-of-the-way location, you could probably keep up the ruse for quite a while - keep the place going and draw in your typical lodgers, vacationers, late-night passers-by. And then, y'know, do you your thing (read: murder). Norman Bates didn't get where he is today by leaving his crime scenes open to the public.
Then again, perhaps the Strangers are simply a nomadic people. Fair enough.
Those relatives arrive soon enough - middle-class couple Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), along with their pouty daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and 35-year-old teenage son Luke (Lewis Pullman). The not-so-happy family is on its way to drop Kinsey off at boarding school - she wears her Ramones T-shirt off the shoulder, keeps a flannel tied around her waist, and smokes cigarettes, so you know she's a rebellious teen* - and are stopping off for the night at the trailer park.
* Time-traveling from the mid-1990s.
Their aunt and uncle run the place. Or did, rather, back when they were alive. Cindy, Mike and the kids initially think nothing of their hosts' absence - after all, they got a delayed start to their trip and arrived later than anticipated - and decide to settle in for the evening. Until there comes a knock at the door with a young woman - her face hidden by an unnatural shadow - on the porch, asking: "Is Tamara home?"
The Strangers' M.O. has remained the same, and soon every member of the family will discover the rest of it. The film, co-written by original helmer Bertino and directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down, The Other Side of the Door), splits the characters up through the neighborhood and its adjacent woods. These characters are also the only people in the civilized world who all, every one of them, casually leave their cell phones on the kitchen table when they leave the house instead of desperately clutching them everywhere they go like normal people. Anyway, this is the film's method of removing any technological possibilities for escape. (The family arrives back at the trailer park and finds all their cell phones smashed to pieces. One wonders what the Strangers' plan might be if the phones were tightly holstered in their owners' pockets.)
The family inadvertently makes the killers' jobs more difficult - but, presumably, more fun? - by splitting themselves up, with one character or another storming out of the house to take a phone-less walk out into the woods and another character being sent after that character, and various family members getting separated and reunited and separated again as our trio gets to work.
Anyway, guess what happens when the local cop shows up.
That they were novices the first time around contributed to the Strangers' potency. But seeing them get up and dust themselves off every time their prey fights back - no matter how violently they fight back - and inevitably return for future installments no matter what supposedly happens to them, as they almost certainly will, makes them inherently less scary and less interesting. Even the name of their franchise seems, in light of their enhanced status, to be something of a misnomer. They're not strangers anymore. We've met. And they've worn out their welcome already.