BY BROOKE CORSO
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” throws every horror cliche in the book into its slasher story of a family of four hunted by a tag team of killers who are simply doing it because “Why not?”
Every expectation you have about what is going to happen — the jump scares, the fake deaths, the protracted threats of shooting a figure without ever shooting said figure, the deadly weapons that manage to stay sparkling clean — is met and then some, with the typical genre weaknesses of sluggish pacing and rampant stupidity reaching a point of insufferability where we don’t know who to champion to make it out alive. Just make something happen, already.
This is a sequel that seems to delight in such lack of direction, casting its net in a much wider space and hoping to pull in more reward. Though it has been eight years since the original left its two victims lying on the living room floor and its three killers driving into the crisp morning light, this new story could very well take place later on that day. There is no specific location other than a rustic trailer park on a touristy lake, no specific time, no specific period clothing other than a teenage daughter wearing a cut-up Ramones shirt to signify that she is a brooding, misunderstood rebel.
The same killers return — or do they? The masks and clothes they wear are the same, but the three actors have changed (this time Emma Bellomy as Dollface, Lea Enslin as Pin-up Girl, and Damian Maffei as Man in the Mask). Does this mean the characters themselves are different people, or are there multiple Dollfaces? Is this an organized network of killers thriving on anonymity and apparent nihilism?
Eight years ago, Brian Bertino wrote and directed the truly terrifying The Strangers, about a young couple terrorized and eventually murdered in their remote country house by three mysterious figures in masks — one male, two female — who then drove off into the crisp morning light. As they ride away in an old pickup truck, the male tells the younger female (or maybe she’s just the newest recruit, as they never remove the disguises) that “it will get easier,” and as we understand it, this is just one in a continuous string of bloody home invasions throughout the Heartland. They don’t seem to show any outward delight in the murders. The original couple was killed “because they were home.”
Here, Johannes Roberts, who helmed 2017’s surprisingly good “47 Meters Down,” takes over direction from a script penned by Bertino and Ben Ketai. An older couple who manage the park during the off-season are killed right before their niece, Cindy (Christina Hendricks) comes to stay in one of the trailers with her husband, Mike (Martin Henderson), son Luke (Lewis Pullman), and daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison).
There is very little revealed of their characters other than they are in financial trouble and that Kinsey got into so much trouble at school the year before that they are sending her to a special boarding school. Kinsey is your typical movie teenager, meaning she is majorly bummed at how lame her parents and society and life and trailer parks are but does absolutely nothing to change or remedy her situation or outlook.
Ten minutes in, I thought, “Well, she’s completely insufferable, which means she will probably survive.” Indeed, most of the movie tries desperately hard to develop some sort of character in her out of the trials she endures, but the effort is fruitless.
The plot points of the original are proudly displayed here: the knock on the front door, the strange girl in the darkness repeatedly asking for “Tamara,” the destroyed cell phones.
This time, however, the context around each familiarity has been diluted, deprived of tension or foreboding. The quiet isn’t as deafening as it originally was, the interior spaces less threatening. We have more people at risk here in a larger space, and it has stretched the horror too thin. Whereas the original stayed mostly confined to one house and at later scenes, a tool shed, here different family members spread out in the park and run through, over, and under different trailers. There is less sense of confinement and extreme isolation, less empathy for the victims. In the original, we truly felt for the couple played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, even though they were breaking up. Here, we have a close but fractured family, but the empathy never gains traction as the parents make irresponsible choices and the teenagers make stupid mistakes.
Much of the fault lies with the character Kinsey, who is sullen and cross at the beginning when she should be helping her struggling parents and then as chaos descends and it would actually help to be silent, she is EXCRUCIATINGLY LOUD. She sobs loudly, she whimpers loudly, she even breathes loudly as she “runs” from trailer to trailer. It’s not even a run, more like a befuddled shuffle. The killers don’t even have to TRY here, as the meandering family are like fish in a barrel.
Maybe that is why the Man in the Mask seems concerned with creating a little ambiance, as when he casually gets into the passenger seat of a vehicle while one victim is trapped in the driver’s seat, choosing the right music to set the mood of his next kill. The killers often announce themselves by blasting ’80s music from their old but immortally resilient pickup truck, as if to say “Look how we have to set up the scene before we murder you; y’all can’t even get that right!”
There are small triumphs toward the end that made the audience cheer, but it is cold comfort as a masked killer is only a fraction more enigmatic than a thinly drawn survivor, and with a lot more potential for imagination. At the end, all we are left wondering is how many people have to be killed for a teenager to show a little gratitude?
That was a trick question: a teenager will never be grateful.
‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ (2018)
STARRING Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman
DIRECTOR Johannes Roberts