‘The Strangers’ S10: 10 Years Later (Movie Review)

I often credit 2008’s The Strangers as one of the last times a horror film unsettled me. Others have scared me since, but that one was something different. Now, ten years later, we have a sequel, The Stranger: Prey at Night. It’s nowhere near as terrifying and often feels like a different move that happens to have some familiar faces…er…masks, but it’s reasonably effective for what it’s doing. The film suffers from a wider setting and dimmer character choices, but it’s stylish in a way that had me admiring the new direction this follow-up decided to take.

This sequel follows a family that’s headed out on a trip to a trailer park. Not the most glamorous adventure, but there are relatives involved, and a lake nearby. Plus, it’s the last trip this family will take before the daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison), is sent off to boarding school. Mike (Martin Henderson) and Cindy (Christina Hendricks) are her parents, and Luke (Lewis Pullman), is Kinsey’s brother.

While more exposition and setup is going on in this sequel, compared to being thrown into the worst night of Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s lives in the first film, made worse by the homicidal maniacs that decided to stalk them, much of the same logic applies. An opening act does just enough almost to have you forget this is a horror film and not a domestic drama, before everything takes a turn, as three people in masks begin terrorizing the innocent family. I can’t say the chemistry shared between this cast was all that great, but I also didn’t want to see any of them die either.

So with all of this in mind and an understanding that there will likely be blood; I’m now curious how many horror movie fans still get scared by horror movies like this one. Being a massive fan of the genre, it is interesting to note how rare I would say I’m scared by these films at this point, despite having so much praise for plenty of horror films I see in a given year. It is human nature to react to certain things, and being startled is undoubtedly one of the more natural reactions to get, given the opportunity, but here we are with a film that goes through all the right steps to be scary, but never feels as suspenseful as it could.

The first film was helmed by newcomer Bryan Bertino, a young filmmaker who initially thought he was merely going to write a scary movie, but ended up directing The Strangers, turning it into a box office hit and horror favorite for many during the 00s, in the process. Some outside factors such as casting and timing helped with that, but Bertino had a great handle on atmosphere and minimalist choices to make the film work so effectively. 47 Meters Down’s Johannes Roberts directs this sequel, with a script co-written by Bertino, and upends much of the craftsmanship that went into the original. But is that a bad thing?

I suppose devoted fans could be irritated, but at the same time, that first film certainly had its influences and Prey at Night is no different. Much like other recent horror/genre film homage-fests such as It Follows or The Guest, this sequel feels like a stylish 80s throwback. Thanks to soundtrack choices, the nature of the three killers who are nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and even the end credit font choice, we have a film that wants to resemble a particular kind of slasher film.

What Prey at Night does not step away from is the level of self-seriousness. There is no room for comedy, or even false jump scares in this film. At 85-minutes, there’s little time for that sort of business, once the horror gets going. Cats don’t jump out of the darkness. Instead, Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask are a constant threat to the family, and they cause all the loud noises and outside distractions leading up to their deadly assaults. This is a lean and very mean thriller, just like its predecessor, even if there are some twists in both the filmmaking formula of a perceived series and certain expectation as to where things are headed.

Additionally, there may be a new handle on the style of the film, but the level of craft is intriguing. The constant handheld camera use from the first film has been replaced with a near constantly-tracking Steadicam. We see lots of long takes that do well to utilize all sorts of zoom techniques to play with the audience’s senses regarding the surroundings. While I don’t ultimately feel a labyrinthine trailer park is anywhere near as spooky as one secluded house, cinematographer Ryan Samul gets credit for making a good-looking movie. One pool-based set piece, in particular, is a real highlight as far as the visual dynamics at play.

I’m sure there are plenty of annoying financial reasons concerning why a sequel to The Strangers didn’t come along a lot sooner, especially given how simple it seems to be to make a follow-up to a minimalist thriller, but the film that finally came is entertaining. It has its share of issues that can be chalked up to having less of a good handle on how to make the characters react to specific scenarios and not utilizing the location in an incredibly effective manner, but it still works. There’s a visceral level of fun to be had in seeing how well this family will stack up against the masked killers. Add to that a fairly stylish paint brush to make this film its own thing, and you have a horror sequel that has what it needs to carve out its place.

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