I saw “The Strangers” long after the hype of the original film had past. I knew of the film’s legacy, but I was far enough removed to see it objectively and I came out thinking all the praise for it was well deserved. It didn’t revolutionize the slasher genre, but the way it handled atmosphere was masterful and the realistic quality to the Strangers made them feel brutally real in a way few slasher villains tend to be. It was easy to see how it became such a landmark film for so many horror fans, so how do you possibly follow that up?
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” follows a family on a trip to drop their young daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison), off at a boarding school. Along for the ride are mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks), dad Mike (Martin Henderson), and big brother Luke (Lewis Pullman). Stopping off at a trailer park owned by Cindy’s uncle, the four settle in for the night . . . until they’re visited by a trio of strangers who disrupt their family trip.
Much like the first “Strangers” the dramatic elements of this plot center around a real, but simple, human drama. In the first “Strangers” we saw a couple dealing with a proposal gone wrong. In “Prey at Night” we have a family that is sending their daughter off to boarding school because of her poor behavior. Of course, the daughter sees this as her parents getting rid of her, but the parents are out of options and are conflicted by their decision to send her away. It’s a decent set-up to get the characters where they need to be in the story, but the melodrama surrounding it comes off as feeling hamfisted. It also doesn’t help that the characters are onenote stereotypes. The daughter is your standard rebellious teen complete with a Ramones t-shirt and a plaid shirt tied around her waist. Meanwhile her brother is as all-American average white kid as you can possibly be. Mom and dad are particularly bland as they don’t do a whole lot in the movie other than to dispense generic platitudes.
Once we get beyond the character drama “The Strangers: Prey at Night” struggles with some familiar slasher movie trappings. Where the first film used its creepy atmosphere to build and build to unsettling moments, this one is more in your face and direct with its scares. That doesn’t mean constant jump scares, but the Strangers don’t just lurk in the shadows. They’re actively pursuing and chasing down their victims. In fact, the Strangers seemingly teleport around, become clairvoyant about where people are hiding, and set traps where they spring out at the most dramatic moment. If the first film was a more quiet ’70s horror film, this one is more of a bombastic ’80s slasher.
This is where I started to come to terms with the movie. It was clear that they weren’t just going to repeat the formula the first film utilized, they were attempting to create a movie that had a much different feel. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the back-half of the movie that I began to appreciate what it was going for. In fact, it was one particular scene where things really took a turn for me. I won’t spoil what it was, but there’s a scene that blends ’80s imagery, ’80s pop music, and a character finally stepping up that reenergized my excitement for the movie. I wasn’t just watching this movie for the next jump scare, I was eagerly anticipating how the surviving characters and the Strangers would clash again.
And while the film does differ from the original “Strangers”, it still shares some of its creepy sensibilities. There are more than a handful of scenes where you catch glimpses of the Strangers lurking in the background, just out of clear view. The film also utilizes uncomfortably long shots where scenes quietly escalate and build to a sickening muted crescendo. Where a normal slasher would end with a big loud noise, “Prey at Night” lets the action quietly happen and its supremely effective when they do it. That being said, the film definitely has more jump scares than the original. And, like the original film, the victims are plagued by stupid decisions like investigating odd noises in the dark or splitting up instead of sticking together.
Another strange oddity, and maybe this will just be a personal complaint, is that the film uses a lot of slow zoom ins. It wasn’t overly cheesy, but once I noticed how often it was happening it started to take me out of the movie. Especially when it was happening to characters to get their reaction shots. Perhaps it was a throwback to ’80s style slasher movies, but I think it could’ve been done more sparingly.
Overall, I found “Prey at Night” to have a slow and typical slasher movie start, but I thought it built up into something unique that feels like a fun throwback and will stand as a completely different film than the original. Which, honestly, is the best thing you can hope for when coming to a film like this. If it had just repeated the formula of the first film I think it would have been supremely disappointing. By taking an alternate route it doesn’t feel like a weak retread for people who were already fans of the original.