“Is Tamara home?” No. She never is, and if you’re a fan of the 2008 home invasion horror hit The Strangers, you know nothing good follows that question. Nothing good at all. What follows is the titular trio of masked murderers – Dollface, Man in the Mask, and Pinup Girl, who torment their prey; poor average folks in the wrong place at the wrong time. Outside that general conceit, the long-awaited sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night doesn’t have much to do with the inspired original, offering instead a new set of characters facing off against the Strangers, a brazen new stylistic approach, and a home invasion thriller that heads outdoors to a result that’s equally thrilling and frustrating.
This time around, the poor folks who open their door are a family of four – mother, Cindy (Christina Hendricks); father, Mike (Martin Henderson); daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison); and son, Luke (Lewis Pullman); the nuclear family, ready to blow. Kinsey is the stereotypical troubled teen, her bad attitude and Ramones shirt pulled from the archives of angst. Her chain-smoking and generic brand sullen girl act has taken its toll and her family is at the breaking point when we meet them. On the way to drop the troubled daughter off at boarding school, the family stops in for the night at the Gatlin Lakes trailer park, an off-season vacation spot piped with thick fog, where they come face-to-face with the sadistic trio of killers and find their strained relationships put to the test.
Working from a draft by The Strangers filmmaker Brian Bertino, rewritten by Ben Ketai, Johannes Roberts‘ (47 Meters Down) sequel takes a cue from the first film and follows characters who are in crisis long before the terror begins. Unfortunately, the character-driven first act just doesn’t deliver. The pieces are there; the longing to feel accepted and the desperate hope for a moment’s peace in your own home, but they never come together in any meaningful way, and the dynamic between the strained family unit is nowhere near as interesting or poignant as the lovers on the fritz in the first film. More often than not their conversations circle down a drain of clichés, most noticeably an extended, uncut slow zoom argument between mother and daughter. Bad Girl Kinsey is too preciously bitter, Good Brother Luke loves baseball and that’s about it, and the parents don’t fare much better.
Worse yet, when the hunt begins, the characters just seem like they want to die, making every wrong decision at every turn. They rarely fight and when they run, they run to the most well-lit, obvious place possible. If there’s a noise, they will investigate it. If there’s a phone, they will lose it. And they split up so fast it feels like an SNL sketch. For the well-versed horror fan (and probably even a casual one), it’s infuriating. During my screening, the audience screamed out in unified fury when a character carelessly put down an object that could save their lives.
But here’s the good news, we screamed because we were caught up. The first act is a drag and downright boring at parts, but when The Strangers: Prey at Night gets going, it really gets going. It can’t match the intimacy or dramatic weight of its predecessor, but it’s not aiming the bleak despair that comes with that kind of commitment to the characters — Roberts doesn’t want to break your heart, he wants to get it it racing — so when the film gets past the strained character drama, it transforms into a breathless, relentless thrill ride and a blatant celebration of slasher cinema.
Roberts loves, and I mean loves the slasher classics, and none more than John Carpenter, whose pulsing, atmospheric brio becomes the life force of Prey at Night. Roberts riffs freely on The Fog and Christine and Halloween, a synth score and 80s-pop soundtrack cementing the retro pastiche. At times, the film toes the line between homage and plagiarism, especially when it comes to shots of trucks, be a flaming pick-up pulled straight from Christine or a beat nearly copy/pasted from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Roberts takes the iconography of the greats and samples them in a strange new tune.
In that regard, there’s a lot of joy to be found in the camera work. Working with the talented cinematographer Ryan Samul, who’s best known for his collaborations with Jim Mickle, including We Are What We Are and Cold in July, Roberts creates a vintage-tinged love letter to horror classics. Pulling from a formalist playbook, Roberts and Samul play freely with split diopter shots and smash zooms, deeply invested in the construction of their Valentine to horror movies past. Occasionally that flourish can be distracting, as in the aforementioned mother-daughter standoff, but more often than not, it’s engrossing, especially during during the full-throttle third act where it all comes together. Prey at Night also benefits from excellent production design and expanded scope, the sprawling trailer park becoming an outdoor house of horrors where you can run, but you can never really hide.
There are sequences in this film that I will study, just as Roberts clearly studied the films that came before him. In particular, a cheeky jump scare that pays off your frustration with a certain character’s constant screaming. Then there’s the one you’re going to hear everybody talking about; a neon-lit poolside set piece that will have you gasping, rolling, and cheering in your seat with horror and delight as “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blares in the background. The camera moves above and below the water, dancing with the violent action, the restrained water-weighted struggle conjuring the sluggishness of a nightmare where you just can’t run away. There’s elation and precise construction in the third act; maybe just enough to bring it all home.
If it sounds like I go back and forth on Prey at Night, it’s because I do. It’s a love-hate relationship, inspired by a punishing first half that’s immediately matched by the giddy climactic thrill ride. With Prey at Night, Roberts gives the slasher classics a big, sloppy kiss and if you’re as enamored with them as he is (and I am), it’s easy to get caught up that cinematic romance yourself. It’s not a great The Strangers sequel. You won’t find the measured restraint of Bertino’s early aughts classic, and Prey at Night certainly doesn’t have the haunting despair or enduring impact of the first film. However, it is a pretty good slasher homage at a time when the genre might finally be perking up after a decade-long disappearing act. Roberts has built a playground of horror homages, where you can delight in the greatest hits from one stop to the next. It might feel like a hell of a long wait to finally get to the attractions, but once you do the ride sure is fun.
For more of my thoughts on The Strangers: Prey at Night, be sure to check out our video review below.