The Strangers: Prey at Night ★★

I remember when the first The Strangers came out. I was in high school and I saw it with a group of friends and it didn’t really leave that much of an impression on me seeing as none of us really paid all that much attention to it while it was on. Later on I watched it while living by myself in a shitty little apartment, dead of night, and found myself wound so tightly that I had to keep checking out the window to make sure there were no masked psychos lurking in the shadows. I had such a complete 180 on my stance for The Strangers that it quickly became one of my favorite home invasion horror movies, a movie that I recommend to people regularly to this day. I don’t know why it took me so long to appreciate it, but have no doubt that I do. So when I heard that they were making a sequel I was hesitantly eager about it. I couldn’t think of a how they were going to follow it up, but I had hope that they would figure it out and make a movie that was even more unsuspectingly terrifying as the first one. Of course I rushed out to theaters to catch a pre screening of this before it came out. Suffice to say, it did not have the intended reaction. And, worse yet, I don’t think any number of revisits is going to change that.

This entry follows a troubled family of four as they make their way to the daughter’s new boarding school. They stop off along the way to spend the night in the aunt and uncles trailer park. A trailer park that is of course deserted and shrouded in the tell tale get-the-fuck-out-of-here fog. They get settled in the trailer and soon the family is all bickering and fucking off to various locations of the trailer park. Which is of course the cue for The Strangers to show up. From then on it’s a non-stop barrage of running, screaming, fighting, stabbing, 80s pop music, neon lights, and idiotic decisions.

On paper, this plot line should have put me into a state of ecstasy. It should have sent me spiraling into some kind of euphoric catatonia where I can only be rousted by an even more compelling story line. I was so blown away by what Bryan Bertino accomplished in the first movie, that utilized like 3 fucking rooms tops and a shed, that I was really amped up to see what he was going to do with an entire trailer park. That is, until I realized that Bertino didn’t really have a whole lot to do with this one. He wrote the original draft of a screenplay that was apparently butchered and changed to the movie that I saw instead. That should have been my first sign of trouble right there.

There was a lot going on in this movie, and almost none of it seemed to mesh with the way the original played out. I understand that when you make a sequel you need to be creative, you have to deviate from what you’ve already done so you don’t stagnate the series or the films. But at the same time I feel like there are certain elements that should remain constant, certain aspects of the movie that make it inherently identifiable and known. You can’t take Mike Meyers and then all of sudden make him start shooting one liners and killing people with a sawn off shotgun, or take Jason and make him start killing people with honey bees. Sure, there may be some interest in seeing those things happen and its fun to fuck around with the concept, but to alter the core of the characters and the movies is to lose them entirely. And that’s kind of what this movie did. It was still Pin Up Girl and DollFace and Masked Man, but at the same time it didn’t seem like them at all. Nothing about them, besides their masks and the truck and the Tamara bit seemed in any way lined up with the established characters that fans of the movie have come to know. They seemed like knock offs, like the mere base elements of those characters. They morphed into these inept killers that couldn’t control a one-room trailer let alone a country house. They just weren’t the same, and when I go to see a horror movie with slasher villains and don’t really get the killers I was looking for the movie has already begun to lose me.

There’s also the fact that the setting is completely different. This isn’t as big of a deal, not by a long shot, but it does alter the theme of the movies. Isolationism and being trapped in this one place that you used to feel comfortable. In the first it’s a house with no neighbors in the middle of nowhere. You could run but where to? In this one it’s a trailer park. The people didn’t live there and they aren’t familiar with it, but there’s also hundreds of places to hide and just as many places to run to. It loses that sense of helplessness and isolation, that dread of not being able to escape. This isn’t a gated trailer park and it connects right to a main road and this is something that the characters, and filmmakers seemed to have just forgotten till the end. Controlling the setting in a movie like this is crucial. The first one masterfully closed off the house from escape and made me believe they were trapped in their own home. I wanted, and expected, a similar thing this time around. I was expecting these killers to convince me that this park was the grave, that there was no getting out of this sprawling complex of trailer shaped coffins. They didn’t even sort of succeed. I never once believed that these people couldn’t have just run out whenever they remembered to do so. I’m pretty sure in one scene I saw traffic in the background. Instead of making me think the characters were stuck and that death was imminent the movie made me think the characters were dumb and wish death was imminent. It’s a big difference.

The music was also just very odd in this movie. I don’t remember the killers having any particular infatuation with 80s pop ballads, but that’s the whole soundtrack this time around and it worked about as well as you’d think. Some of the song choices just didn’t seem to fit with the movie I was watching, even in an ironic sense, and I couldn’t really grasp where the 80s addiction came from. I understand that director Johannes Roberts must have been attempting to homage the decade where these movies reigned supreme, but I don’t think he really pulled it off. There’s a lot of 80s love in this movie, and I truly am all about that, but it just didn’t mesh as well as it could have. And homaging is one thing, but there’s an art to it. Throwing in some 80s songs to let us know you’re aware of the Golden Age is one thing, but stuffing in like 12 songs is just a bit much. Especially if some, like Kids In America make no sense since at least two of these killers gotta be damn near 40. But if you just lift a scene from another movie and toss it into your own, that’s not an homage. There’s a scene in here that is almost identical to a scene in Christine, with the flaming car on the bridge, and the guy chasing after the truck is so obviously a carbon copy of Leatherface’s iconic scene that I didn’t find myself enjoy the scenes or liking the references, I was just shaking my head at the lack of creativity and originality for this films climax. I mean after the 11-hundredth zoom I was tired of Roberts trying so damn hard to lift every conceivable 70s and 80s motif. Homages and shout outs and references are awesome and I’m all about them, but only if they’re done properly.

And that goddamn ending. That goddamn stupid fucking final scene. It was one of the worst scenes of the entire movie and it made zero sense. It was already horrible the way this film played out and how they decided to deal with the villains, but that last scene was pretty much just insult to injury and infuriated me almost as much as anything else could have.

Now I am a die-hard lover of horror movies and therefore I did find some things to enjoy and appreciate in this film. The acting was pretty hit or miss but I thought Hendricks and Henderson did a great job, Henderson looking like Speedman’s cousin. The kids were pretty abhorrent and there are a lot of scenes were I was laughing at how cringeworthy they were. Some of it was intentional, like Bailee Madison smoking those cigarettes, but some was just plain bad, like Lewis Pullman looking as if he’s about to burst out laughing when the truck plows through the trailer wall. But I don’t mind that too much, because it adds some enjoyment to the movie. This wants to be an 80s throwback? Well shitty acting is a staple so if anything the acting fails added more to this movie then they could have possibly dreamed of.

There are also a couple of really effective scenes that really pulled me into the movie. The ice pick death in the car was great, I thought the acting was spot on and the music worked well and Man in the Mask looked creepy as ever and it was just an excellently constructed scene. And the scene at the club house/pool was one of the best in the entire movie. The neon lighting was perfect for that scene and the vicious struggle between Pullman and the killers, the music blaring above water and muffled below, and the sheer savagery of the entire encounter was exactly what I wanted from this movie. It gave me hope the movie might turn itself around at the end; it was that great of a scene for me.

There’s a much higher body count this time around, for those of us that are counting, and there’s some decent blood in this one. You got your variety of stabbings but you also have some shotgun blastings, slit throat, bludgeoning. There’s a nice assortment of death to be had for the horrorhounds and gore fiends and we can all be glad that at least nailed that rule of 80s horror: sequels have more kills and more gore.

I’m glad I saw this but I maintain that I don’t think any rewatches are going to up my score here. It was just too disjointed and lacking in so many crucial areas and there is so much that didn’t land anywhere near as hard as it should’ve. I think that if they had altered this a little bit, changed some of the awful decisions they made at the end of the movie, and made this a prequel to the first one I would have fucking loved it. And it would have explained a lot of the 80s fetishes. But alas, they didn’t. And so what we’re left with is this. A mediocre follow up to an outstanding indie horror classic. A movie that has its heart in the right place but fails to make much use of it. A movie with just a few fleeting glimpses at what it could have, and should have, been.

Maybe for people that have never seen the first one this is a good intro point, or for people that are just starting to get into horror and slashers this might be a nice early entry. But for us veterans of the blade-wielding-masked-night-stalkers this is pretty disappointing stuff.

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