The Strangers: Prey at Night ★★★★

Like Happy Death Day last year, The Strangers: Prey at Night remixes the great films of horror past to ask what makes great horror present -- this time, in addition to story tropes is also iconography: a little Evil Dead title card here, some Carpenter lens flares there (with a burning car photographed quite like the titular Plymouth in Christine), a Texas Chain Saw Massacre ending to top it all off. Strangers 2 is not interested in puncturing genre myth, however; the family of protagonists is trapped in a horror film with myth run amuck.

Director Johannes Roberts and his DP Ryan Samul are careful to initially give us the '80s horror coating the throwback title card would suggest. One of the first few shots is a classic split-field diopter shot; not much later the camera deftly glides from a wide establishing shot of the room to a close-up of a plot-important handwritten note. We are introduced to a normal, all-American family, but something is different this time. Little to no exposition is given; we are left guessing exactly what has led to their road trip to move the youngest daughter into a boarding school. It is apparent this family has its problems, but, as revealed through some immediate and tender moments of humanist emotion, they care about each other deeply. These are real people -- not horror film subjects, yet all signs signal that this is, in fact, a horror film.

When the horror proper picks up, it is still plainly a movie, if not more so: dialogue is clearly dubbed in post-production, a knife is clearly rubber, a stunt double clearly jumps from a roof and the actress then runs around the corner. Our family is trapped in a clear artifice of filmmaking, accentuated by dynamic camerawork. When a sudden, emotionally powerful blow is dealt to the audience, it becomes apparent that there are stakes here, and they are big ones at that. Everything immediately becomes a game of roles. Siblings tell a funny story about the deceased to lighten the mood right when we expect them to; our scream-queen heroine has a dramatic victory walk away from her blazing, vanquished foes. The characters do not want these moments. They do not make the proper expressions, and thus these classic archetypal sequencess don't seem quite right. Before we can even adjust to these uncanny variations, they are immediately cut abrupt by the film's breakneck pace, never allowing for the desired catharsis.

Even the titular Strangers fill their archetypal, mythic roles. First, they satisfy the in-universe mythos by re-enacting their methodology from the first film -- cynically, this is merely empty signification as the recreation of the porch scene from the predecessor has no bearing on the plot of this film. Then, as one might expect, the villains stand motionless in the background, coming into focus and running away. They taunt their victims aurally and physically. They are hunting in classic horror fashion, yet they, too, seem unequipped for these roles. Building on the dissection of the car stabbing scene Julian wrote in his review, let's look at another key scene (spoilers, go to next paragraph to skip): Kinsey has just lit the male stranger ablaze, and he has chased her down in his now burning truck. She can run no further; he exits the vehicle, still dragging his ax. He, the invincible Myers-esque masked murderer, is to kill her, yet... he falls to the ground, exhausted and singed. A few seconds later, of course, he is momentarily resurrected for a final adrenaline burst before his final dispatching, but for a moment he was finished before he was forced to return to "filling [a role] originated by others." Even Dollface, when pressed for an explanation for the cruel malice of the strangers, is unable to give a sadistic answer like in the first film, but rather offers the weak and nihilistic answer "why not?"

So, these real people are thrust into a never-ending horror nightmare, a classic horror-mythic structure redressed as a malfunctioning neon carousel. They are restricted to acting out pre-written roles, except this time they are not fighting against a revenge-driven supervillain, they are not protecting themselves from the sins of their parents or an invasion of their suburban utopia. This time they are faced with cynical sadists with no cause but to kill -- to kill you because it is their written role to do so. Heroic sacrifice means nothing; even getting "one of them" is vile and contains no guarantees of future safety. There are not even guarantees you even can kill them at all in this eternal torture fantasy. Even if you can manage to escape or eliminate all of your attackers, the effects of the psychological terror will haunt you forever. It simply will never end, and nothing you do will mean anything either way.

If horror films act as dreams or investigations of society's hidden guilts or weak points, then they should also act as preparatory fantasies, but Strangers: Prey at Night will not allow this. All those other horror films meant nothing, too. This is an entirely different approach for revising horror in a modern context when compared to Happy Death Day. Instead of winkingly recontextualizing the horror-myth, Strangers 2 drains it of all its hope and sublime, fantastical distance. This is reality. There are no second chances, and there is no meaning. There is nothing to glean from this nightmare other than that nothing can truly be gleaned.

PS: an impeccable film. Will easily make my top 5 for 2018, and I hope all will be joining me in voting for the pool scene as Best Scene in the those end of the year Letterboxd awards.

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