Starring: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson & Bailee Madison
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
I’m a sucker for horror sequels! There’s something about its underdog status that I relish, often finding myself rooting for it over its more popular older sibling. But horror sequels can be tough! They’re entirely different beasts than their predecessors, living by a brand new set of rules. Expectations are higher, and fans anticipate an increased body count with plenty more gore. For the most part, brand new victims need to be integrated into a world already blood strewn from the first, pitting them against a killer that fans either love – Scream’s Ghost Face, or love to hate; I Know What You Did Last Summer’s hook-wielding fisherman. Everything is at stake, and nothing and nobody is really safe anymore.
This is exactly why director Johannes Roberts follow up to Bryan Bertino’s 2008 bone-chillingly bleak home invasion film, The Strangers, quickly popped up on my radar as a sequel to look out for. Not only was it bringing back three terrifyingly ambiguous killers – the Masked Man, Dollface, and Pin-Up for some more late-night slashing, but it was leaving behind the confines of a couple’s cabin, bringing us into the open playing field of a trailer park. Sprinkle in some mall-hits of the 80’s, and The Strangers: Prey at Night seemed destined to slay as a slasher sequel.
But like I said, horror sequels can be tough.
Acting as more of a slasher than a home invasion film, The Strangers: Prey at Night opens with the first films F-100 pick-up truck pulling up to a trailer while blasting Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’, embracing the because you were home-anarchy of our three killers. It’s a sendoff into a decade that’s currently all the rage, saturating both soundtracks (The Guest) and television (Netflix’s Glow) alike. Soon our three disguised predators begin terrorizing a family who are just trying to drop off their moody rebellious teenage daughter, Kinsey (played by Bailee Madison), at a trailer park that also happens to be a boarding school. It’s a relatively strange setting for an education, but as any intelligent horror fan knows, it isn’t so much the playing field as it is the players and how it’s used.
Johannes Roberts, who re-invented the oversaturated Jaws formula by shoving it inside a shark cage with last year’s 47 Meters Down, leads us out into the open, playing off the chase aspect of the slasher subgenre more than anything else. It’s more because you showed up than “because you were home”, ditching the safety and intimacy of the domicile, focusing less on the shadowy meet and greet of the first in favor of the stalk and slash of films like Halloween and Christine. And Roberts’s affection and predilection for John Carpenter’s entire filmography can be felt in just about every frame, working more as a copy and paste effect rather than a nod to the nature that brought those films to roaring life.
Roberts effectively uses the cramped quarters of a shark cage to suffocating depths in 47 Meters Down, which imparts a genuine fear through Aquaphobia, once again reminding us why the expansiveness of the ocean is so damn terrifying. And maybe Roberts works better in tight spaces or perhaps off-land, as he never quite grasps the openness in the camp-like setting of Kinsey’s new boarding school.
Dollface (Emma Bellomy) skulks after her and her brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) with all the mannerisms of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, though it all amounts to nothing but posturing. Roberts replicates the design of the slasher, but he forgets that with such recreation comes the necessity for the feel of it; that unending pursuit that raises the hair on our neck that makes us want to turn around and beg for our lives.
Except that these are lives whose grief feels inconsequential, a family who is forced to make rash decisions and move on in order to survive. While it makes the film feel as immediate and natural as the first, the takeaway is how little affection we have for them, which is a surprising turn of events given how quickly (and powerfully) we feel for The Strangers first victims, Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman).
Their grief is tangible, tumultuous, and teetering on the brink of destruction, yet tethered by love. Roberts works to replicate the suddenness of the family’s rocky relationship, and it could quite possibly work in the same vein had we been given an opening into the cracks that have formed between Kinsey and her parents, Cindy and Mike (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson).
Instead, Kinsey is angst-ridden towards her parents for putting her in this new setting, and Luke is simply caught in the middle, trying to lead his own life while playing the face of reason for every moody outbreak. These are simply cookie-cutter characters going through the motions while emoting, which happens to be far less effective than it wants to be. It feels placed in front of us because that’s just how the family dynamic works, even if it means we don’t firmly believe it.
As the body count rises and the 80’s pop hits slice through scenes – which range from Air Supply to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart in a surprisingly masterful pool scene, it becomes more and more clear that enthusiasm and passion don’t make a horror hit. Even the elements of the chase, taking on a fiery Christine exterior, don’t feel cut from an understanding of what makes them work, placing them on screen because it’s a horror fan serving horror fans.
It’s an endearing quality that worked swimmingly with 47 Meters Down, yet within the terrorizing nihilism of its three masked maniacs, The Strangers: Prey at Night feels more like someone sucked all the fruit flavor fun out of our stash of retro Wax Bottles.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is now on general release in UK cinemas.