The Strangers: Prey at Night ★★½

EDIT/PREFACE: Short version of whether or not this is actually a good movie: while watching I thought it was mostly not good but digestible and easy to not be annoyed by. Then the Total Eclipse sequence kicked ass and the third act in general was good. That was my opinion while watching. Not super positive. Since then my feelings on it have gotten very complicated and I may be totally deluding myself but the fact that I'm still wondering about it makes me think there's something to it. But what I'm wondering about is basically to what degree so much of this movie being pointless and nonsensical and ultra-straightforward is intentional so YMMV.

I was waffling between a 2 and a 2.5 for this, but it put me in a slightly giddy mood and I really wish I had someone with whom to talk about it, which are both good signs that I should be a little generous. Maybe a 2.5 isn't generous. Honestly, I'm open to the possibility that this film is sort of brilliant. I don't think that's likely, but it's a weird one.

Like, first thing's first (and maybe don't read this if you think there's a chance you'll ever see this movie, cuz I don't want to set expectations too high, because part of why this bit is great is that its greatness comes out of nowhere): there's about two minutes of this movie that kicks ASS—the Total Eclipse of the Heart sequence. It honestly singlehandedly made this movie worth my time. My reaction to it is a little hyperbolic but I see tons of movies in hopes that even the lesser ones will offer something memorable, that movies I expect nothing from will provide bursts of greatness. And this was just exactly that. Starting with that un-fucking-believable shot with the smash zoom, oh my god. And then just yeah. My jaw dropped. It's not that it was *great,* it was just so fucking fun, it was a dream come true, exactly what I want from a barebones, formally-accomplished 70s/80s slasher throwback. Even, like, in the context of this being a The Strangers movie—in the first film, the protagonists basically have no chance from the beginning, the Strangers are sort of omnipotent and omniscient, that's the whole gimmick and structure of the film, they're just overly theatrical sadists unhurriedly toying with their prey. And the Total Eclipse sequence complicates that in a way jarring and effective enough that I think it in one fell swoop gives a lot more credibility to academic reads of this movie and the possibility that it's a campier, more self-aware, self-deconstructive lateral-move sequel in the great vein of Texas Chain Saw or any number of slasher franchises, though it's not anywhere near as campy/self-aware as Texas Chain Saw 2, for instance, I mean that comparison more in the sense that it's not a just-more-of-the-same sequel—well, it is sort of that for a while, but then semi-dramatically upends that... It's like the first Strangers walked into an ultra-generic slasher (except not—there's no sleazy archetypal/psychoanalytic/mythic/sexual/moral hierarchies and symbolisms here, no real gender stuff or teens being punished for fucking and all that—it's just a family, with mild, generic problems, being killed. And actually the lack of that trashy, sometimes/often-unintentional psychoanalytic slasher foundation was kind of a "you don't know what you got til it's gone" thing, I missed it, until now I'm kind of realizing that maybe this movie is a bit of an audience-complicity stunt? And that's the "substance" to its stalk-and-kill mechanics replacing the usual primal sexual substance?)... anyways, it's like the first Strangers [a slasher movie at first glance but isn't really] walked into a normal slasher with plenty of Mickle/Wingard/Barrett neon- and needle-drop-loving DNA in it and became this weird contradiction of, like...

Well, so, the Strangers in this kind of definitely have a Cabin in the Woods audience surrogate thing going, right? There's a scene where a dude's wounded, stuck in a crashed car, and one of the killers gets in the car with him and flips through the radio looking for a song he likes. When he finds it, he turns it up and then kills the guy. When that's done he nonchalantly turns it back off. It's like he's contriving this cinematic moment, the bloody kill with the ironic 80s pop, and the killers do that so often in this movie. Everything they do makes so little sense, and in the first film that came down to them toying with their prey, but in this film it feels more like a weird thing, like... Look at that poster. The religious poses—oh, well, I guess it's called "Prey at Night," is that supposed to be a pun? "Pray at night" isn't, like, a phrase, though. But I guess that poster is sort of a play on the title. But also, I don't know, the way it's like, the butcher knives, the axe, the masks - the holy articles of the horror movie. Plus this film has quite a few explicit references to classic horror, including straight-up using one of the most iconic horror endings of all time as its penultimate scene (which should have been its final scene for sure [also, honestly, like, that was a fun moment? It somehow earned it, or it felt right, which is pretty remarkable and also makes me think that this movie is trying to engage with horror history).

But, like, NOTA BENE: leaving the theater part of my reaction was "I haven't seen many films that made so little effort to feign 'substance.'" Which is definitely not a criticism and might even be praise, when bad movies (which this is not), especially bad genre films, waste time on ultra-insipid, vacuous, obligatory personal conflicts and platitudes and would-be emotional beats, like, those are usually the most insufferable parts of bad movies, whenever a movie is like "I'm a gory, dark but fun low-budget Satanic horror! Here are some endless minutes of rote father-daughter bonding because we apparently think movies have to have that shit between the stuff they're actually slightly good at!" lol that example is clearly aimed at the sort of okay The Devil's Candy, not very accurately, but I just mean, like, that kind of thing—a lot of action and horror and comedy movies have really lost their way on just being fun? Look, if you're a good movie, go for more than fun. If you're not a very good movie, just do fun! Don't burden us with not even half-assed but one-hundredth-assed character development, with ending on a totally limp sequence of your grizzled action hero finally being responsible in his relationship with his ex-wife right after a climax where he blows up a plane or whatever. And okay this is weird coming from me because I loooooove ambition and weirdness from all movies, good or bad, but I'm not talking about genuine ambition, I'm talking about filmmakers and producers not knowing their strengths, what kind of story they're telling, and assuming you have to cram in all these vapid Screenwriting 101 obligations even when the quality and structure and true intentions of the movie make them ring nauseatingly hollow. And it's also weird that I'm saying this movie doesn't do that, because it does, like most horror movies, open with a decently long stretch of mild family bickering, of grumpy rebel daughter and teasing siblings and all that. But the movie seems to be intentionally making that feel incidental? It's not tongue in cheek at all, or anything, but it feels like the film is consciously making it sort of easy to just tune out and experience that part of the movie just as the expected calm before the storm, like it's not really inviting us to enjoy it for anything but its formal qualities at that point. It definitely doesn't feel like it's trying to get us seriously emotionally invested in these characters or the family issues which mostly go out the window by the end. It's sort of yadda-yadda-ing it. Although it does yadda-yadda for a while. But I don't know, it didn't really bother me?

But anyways, jesus, this film is making me write more incomprehensibly than usual, anyways, leaving the theater I almost thought this film went too far in the not-attempting-to-have-any-"substance"-or-themes direction. Like, this movie is a family going to an unpopulated trailer park, and they get attacked, and they run around screaming and dying one by one. That's totally it. The deaths aren't even crudely symbolic of the character receiving some kind of sadistic divine comeuppance for a moral failure or sexual transgression! It feels like there's so little to analyze or think about or feel, no way to watch this movie except "here are some people, here are some people trying to kill them, it's dark out, go." Now I'm more convinced that this film is trying to do some kind of vague meta-analysis of horror, although even that it feels like it's doing more for fun than because it thinks it has anything seriously new to add to that pretty well-worn conversation. That's just the flavor of this particular killathon.

So it sort of feels like an exercise? But damn, it's a pretty okay exercise. It's only digestible until the last twenty minutes or so kick it up into solidly fun, but Roberts has chops? Well, I don't know how much credit goes to him and how much goes to noted Jim Mickle cinematographer Ryan Samul, whose work here kicks so much ass. I don't know, I think it's the direction, too, there's one just like tracking two-shot of a couple people entering a building, but it's staged and shot in a way where the focus (not literal focus) shifts between them as they talk, and it's not at all mindblowing, that's just one example of, like, hey, that's actual, accomplished directing? That shouldn't be unusual but it takes some skill to make that kind of thing look good. Like very little of this film is thoughtless shot-reverse-shot coverage and what a fucking blessing that is in this age of American cinema. Some really solid split diopter shots, and honestly, as far as this decade's wave of genre films using throwback zooms, this is probably top tier? The way the look of this film is executed is really, really effective.

Honestly, in a weird way, this is the kind of movie I live for. Not very good, but does some memorable, interesting, weird, even confusing stuff, and is cinematically sort of lovely, and has one completely exhilarating sequence that's already burned into my brain. Even the stuff that isn't very good in the moment I now think is kind of like part of the structure of this film? I dunno. While watching I was like "there's so little to think about" but I haven't stopped thinking about it since it ended.