There’s something about home invasion movies that uproots our primal sense of security. Our homes are our fortresses and when those safe zones are threatened, nothing is more unsettling. When Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers hit theaters in 2008, it delivered a dreadful tale about an on-the-rocks couple whose lives were tormented by three psychopaths who invaded their homefront. It was a taut horror tale that slowly pulled the noose tighter and tighter as the protagonists’ window for survival dwindled. It was claustrophobic and relentless, terror without motivation or provocation that morphed from bleak to bleaker.
In the sequel, subtitled Prey At Night, Man in the Mask, Pin-up Girl and Dollface are back, skulking in the night, hiding in the fog and torturing new victims. A family of four pulls over to stay at a trailer park en route to dropping their daughter off at boarding school. Kinsey is moody and rebellious, which we’re told through her Ramones tee she wears hanging off one shoulder and the flannel she ties around her waist. Son Luke is a more straight-laced All-American type, while Cindy and Mike, the parents, are hip enough, but worried about the path Kinsey has set herself on. Before the mayhem, we’re introduced to the family’s dramas through shaky dialogue and paper thin characters, which is more the writers’ fault than the actors. Only when the running and the stabbing commence do we see the actors gel and feel the family’s connection. But oh man, is there stabbing. And axe swinging.
The mobile home in question is mostly abandoned thanks to summer’s end, which makes the family lambs waiting for slaughter. Bertino is writing once again alongside Ben Ketai, and the two nicely expand the playing field from the confined space of a singular house. The two children soon find themselves separated from their parents as they discover the bodies of the film’s first two victims. Later, the foursome is split between mother-daughter and father-son, and these pairings help us learn more about the characters’ relationships than any of the previous throwaway dialogue.
While the villains pull many of the same horrifying punches (“Is Tamera home?”), the sequel does attempt to reach new ground. Along with the expanded setting comes some fantastic camera work thanks to cinematographer Ryan Samul (We Are What We Are). Along with director Johannes Roberts, the filmmakers use a well-balanced blend of darkness and light to achieve the perfect mise-en-scène, massively upping the creep-factor. The film takes a lot from John Carpenter as well, using heavy fog effects and later, tense car chase elements à la Christine, to pay homage to the horror maestro. Samul has a lot of fun with the camera, juxtaposing super wide atmospheric shots that zoom in tight on the characters’ fear. The audience is constantly scanning the darkness searching for the three masked murderers, but when the camera tightens, the tension triples. Whereas the first film capitalized on the cramped quarters, heightening feelings of hopelessness, the bigger playground allows for more cinematic fun. Prey At Night definitely displays a lot of technical competence.
Along with honoring 80’s auteurs (look for a blatant nod to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, too), the movie overreaches in trying to match the recent obsession with nostalgia. There are some fantastic music placements, though, and I can assure you that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” will only give me chills from here on out. At times, it seems that the movie may use the 80’s as a crutch, and to be honest, it doesn’t need them (perhaps Roberts wanted to secure a new tone). The best sequences are its most original ones, including a beautifully shot poolside throwdown and the climactic battle between one character and the Man in the Mask (picture vehicular havoc and a lot of flames).
Prey At Night never tries to sell us on a thinly crafted back story as to why the antagonists stalk their prey. We’re never shown anything from Man in the Mask, Dollface or Pin-up Girl’s perspective. As opposed to other slashers, where chase scenes come and go, separating individual characters from the masses to pick off one by one, Prey At Night is a high-octane tale of survival, a cat and mouse game that taunts just as much as it terrorizes. Whereas simplicity worked in spades for the first entry, Prey At Night allows itself to feel bigger and artsier, and this mostly works in its favor.
Prey At Night is exactly what slashers should look like in 2018. I’m pretty desensitized when it comes to horror. Not many movies give me that “I can’t sleep at night” feel that turns one’s arms and legs to jelly and makes you look over your shoulder when you’re walking back to your car. But The Strangers movies, both of them, are so effective. Once these new victims realize they’re mice being stalked, the movie is relentless, drowning its characters in dread and raising the dejection…everything that made The Strangers so special in the first place. Grade: B+