It’s taken nearly a decade, but after several years of rumours and speculation, the sequel to home invasion horror film The Strangers (2008) is finally in theaters. While the original film, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, was not necessarily warmly received by critics, it proved to be a modest box office hit. A well-structured horror film defined by a quiet, mounting tension, The Strangers developed a following among horror fans. Affixed with the subtitle, Prey at Night, The Strangers sequel hit theaters last Friday with relatively modest expectations.
The Strangers: Prey at Night follows the established formula set by its predecessor, only increasing the size of the ‘playing field’ for its killers and victims. A family of four travelling to drop off their troubled teenage daughter at a private school stop at a trailer park to visit and spend the night with an aunt and uncle. When they arrive they find the park deserted until a familiar figure turns up knocking on their door, asking for “Tamara”. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Martin Henderson (The Ring) replace Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman for this go-around. Most importantly, the budding franchise’s villains (Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and Man in the Mask) all return.
More Cliches, Less Scares
Sometimes you just can’t go home, a point firmly reinforced by Prey at Night. This is a film that rigidly adheres to the sequel playbook – it’s louder, more violent, and has a higher body than the first film. While The Strangers methodically built from a quiet opening and progressively dialed up the scares, Prey at Night starts quickly with two deaths right out of the gates, putting its killers much front and center this time around. Music was used sparingly to great effect in the original to create a sense of dread. In contrast, the 80’s pop music-infused soundtrack for the sequel is much more prominent and, at times, distracting.
The biggest criticism of Prey at Night is its firm embracing of horror film cliches. Characters split up, a police officer shows up and is killed with seconds, the killers are illogically omnipresent, one character runs in a straight line while being chased by a slow-moving car – I had a running list in the back of my head as the film chugged along. At one point, a character actually says, “I’ll be right back.” And yes – seemingly dead killers jump back to life. Twice.
Fortunately, Prey at Night is somewhat salvaged by its second half, which offers enough action and scares to justify the film’s existence. Once the story begins to pick up director Johannes Roberts keeps the pace moving and spreads out enough jumps and death scenes to distract the audience from thinking too hard about what’s happening. There isn’t much in the way of atmosphere or tension, but the jump scares are effective. Roberts did manage to get me jumping out of my reclining theater seat a few times. One scene involving a Jack-in-the-Box also shows some restraint in building up the anticipation and delivering on the scare.
Roberts – who helmed last year’s surprise hit, 47 Meters Down – also demonstrates some visual flair in a few scenes. Both the ‘pool fight scene and the ‘flaming car’ chase are set up effectively and beautifully executed on screen. There is an intensity to each of the death scenes that give them a certain level of gravitas, often absent from other horror films. These scenes are greatly assisted by the film’s villains who remain menacing if not a little overused this time. The Strangers was a much more patient film, allowing its killers to linger in the background or shadows. In Prey at Night, the movie leans much more heavily on the presence of its villains. While the pop music score is distracting in some scenes, Roberts does employ some musical segments very effectively to contribute to the 80’s horror aesthetic the film was trying to establish.
Watching The Strangers: Prey at Night, one gets the impression that there was a much better sequel buried somewhere in the film’s brisk 85 minutes. Roberts has shown flashes of being a good horror film director and you have to wonder if he could have done more with a better screenplay. Prey at Night clearly aspires to more, with its homages to John Carpenter’s Christine and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s ending. Its few redeeming qualities just get overwhelmed by the assembly-line of horror film and sequel stereotypes.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: C-