Slashers come in all shapes and sizes. From the blood-curdling screams of Friday the 13th, to the blood-curdling screams of I Know What You Did Last Summer; and not forgetting the blood-curdling screams of the original blood-curdling screamer, Psycho. On the other hand, home invasion horrors – such as modern cult favourite The Strangers – invoke an all too different kind of scream.
The Man in the Mask, Dollface and Pinup return after 10 years for slasher-sequel The Strangers: Prey At Night, set on a trailer park with its latest arrivals, a nuclear family of mum Cindy (Christina Hendricks), dad Mike (Martin Henderson), son Luke (Lewis Pullman) and the angstiest daughter that ever angsted, Kinsey (Bailee Madison). An unnerving knock at the door sets off a trail of events leading to grizzly strangers, gory stabbings and gruesome slayings.
Slashers have a long and varied reputation for screams: scream queens, screaming audience members, even outrightly calling themselves Scream in a meta homage. But home invasion films’ reputation is one of being more likely to elicit groans. Disdainful Deutsche director Michael Haneke famously ripped the sub-genre a proverbial “new one” when the keenly self-aware Funny Games infiltrated the home of horror audiences in 1997 under the guise of a typical genre piece – before ripping its mask off, looking directly down the barrel of the camera and poking the audience square in the eye with one hand and flicking the Vs at anyone else in the vicinity with the other. And then of course he did it all again but in American, just to reiterate the ferocity of his metaphorical “F off”.
The basic argument for Funny Games? There has to be something wrong with all of us if we enjoy movies such as The Strangers. They seek to stimulate the innermost grotesqueness of human nature, to stoke the fires of your imagination as you proceed to place yourself in the shoes of the characters. Whether it’s the buoying action of You’re Next, or the horrifying satire of that bit in A Clockwork Orange, if you’re pumping your fist in the air at a small slice of revenge, or squirming in your seat watching through finger slits, the movie is working its magic like a charm.
Prey At Night is under no illusions as to what it is, even if what it is isn’t all that clear to everyone else. It heavily dilutes the home invasion aspect and ramps up its footing in slasher territory, but just like the diegesis director Johannes Roberts (Storage 24, 47 Metres Down) and writers Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai have created for the characters, it too struggles to escape its trappings. Firstly, by “doing a Purge” and diverting away from its home invasion roots to spread out across a larger playground, the film loses some of its soul; and probably what the audience want from a Strangers sequel. Secondly, the filmmakers know that the small, claustrophobic and seemingly inescapable rooms are key elements, and yet often times the story can’t get out of these scenarios quick enough for another superficial shot of characters running around outside in the dark.
There’s only so long you can be sustained by fantasising about whether or not you would re-enter the empty caravan after discovering the mutilated remains of dear old uncle Marv, or whether you would pull the trigger if faced with the ultimate dilemma. These kinds of movies become safe environments to explore these darker thoughts, but sooner or later, there’s going to be the need for the film itself to give you something to work with.
To compare it again to The Purge and its sequels, this could have been an ideal opportunity to create a piece of art that says something about society, or culture, or anything at all really. Perhaps there is a rather distasteful scorn levelled at the obsession with “retro” music being used in modern horrors – or perhaps it is simply trying to latch onto other cooler movies? Perhaps the ode to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is meant to show how well its creators know the tropes of the sub-genre and rather than break from the conventions have instead decided to embrace them fully – or perhaps it’s just lazy writing and they ran out of ideas? Perhaps having a young single woman trying to understand her place in the world by fighting off faceless advances from unknown anonymous assailants is to analogise the wider problem for women in a patriarchal society emboldened by powerful white men – or perhaps it just looks cool to have them wearing goofy masks whilst stabbing her family with a Phillips screwdriver?
Perhaps it is all and none of those things; and ultimately, it is meant to be enjoyed for the daft caper that it is? There will be an audience for this movie, no doubt you too might add it to your Netflix watch list should it pop up there in the near future. But set your expectations to “slightly drunk late on a Friday evening” and you may have a good time with it. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.
The Strangers: Prey At Night is available to buy on digital download right now.