Horror films are a lot like firework shows. They can either be as dull as a static television, or they can be as surprising as a rollercoaster ride, and on top of that, they are everywhere. The genre is attempting to regain its footing in a lot of ways as the tropes of the genre have begun to take the center spotlight. These tropes can be found in Johannes Roberts’ “The Strangers: Prey at Night” in which a family finds themselves trapped in a trailer park with three deranged individuals whose killing spree springs from no rhyme or reason.
The follow up to Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers” serves in no collusion to its predecessor and instead expands the mythology around these terrifying lunatics that continue their killing spree for no reasonable idea. We do not know if this film takes place after the events from the couple in the country house or before, but what we do know is that these three will do any means necessary to carry out their sinful deeds.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” has a lot of things to rip apart, but there is more to like for me. As a rare fan of its predecessor, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” serves as a separate storyline to the first film that doesn’t expand upon our original story, but provides some truth to their lunacy. The film opens with a feat of intrigue that allows for us to reason with the characters in how they are diverging in an emotional sense. This provides a substantial dose of tension as the reasoning behind their choices for separation, or lack of care for one another is believable. This is a family going through a phase of adaptation that is failing to adapt with the life that is colliding with them, but “The Strangers” could care less what emotional torment this family is experiencing.
This introduction creates an authentic basis in which every moment of horror feels plausible. Very few moments ever begin to feel fictional in this ninety-minute thriller, well that is until the third act begins. The story wears thin in this final act as it takes leaps of implausibility and adds a sense of supernaturality to these lunatics, which is where I begin to divulge that “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a barely passable film. It does just enough to keep you engaged with its story, but never provides a sufficient amount of filmmaking to produce some escapism.
The direction is satisfactory at best but has some sheer moments of genius. There is one particular tracking shot in a tension-filled pool sequence that envelops the screen like that of a great action sequence in which your pulse quickens, your palms become sweaty, and you're unable to tear your eyes away. The score is too much like that of John Carpenter’s filmography that it distracts far more than it intrigues. The countless homages to films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween” serve more as subpar warnings of the film’s shortcomings. Johannes, like in “47 Meters Down,” begins to suffer from either overconfidence or lack there of it.
The performances are exceptional and crummy. Bailee Madison is far better than expected. Her character can become unrealistically written, but her performance is anything but implausible. She is incredibly emotional and never feels bombastically unbelievable, but I can’t say the same for her male co-star in that of Lewis Pullman. Mr. Pullman is unable to pull-off the bravado needed to begin to feel like the male douche he depicts. His fictional father, Martin Henderson, has a laughable moment in his performance in which he struggles to convey pain or fear of any kind. It was a legitimate laugh out loud moment that took the film down more than a few points for myself. Christina Hendricks is barely in the movie long enough to become memorable, but all of these performances are not what brings this film down, nor what lifts the film up.
The performances fade into the background because the violence becomes the mainstay of the entertainment. The grotesqueness of the film is far more hinted at than shown which provides a stronger sense of terror than giving away the goods ever would. The direction has moments of stupidity involving quick zooms but also has moments of genius as I’ve already discussed. The scares are real and believable, but when the third act hits and the heroes begin to stand up to the fear the film becomes adrenaline rushing and a bit ridiculous. On the one hand, you are cheering for them to survive, but when you add in an over the top dose of storytelling, then you begin to lose half the audience.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is like a kid finding awesome toys and becoming confused with how to play with them. Johannes can provide some moments of genius and build upon the mythology of these slashers in a good way, but he also reaches into the candy jar far more than he should, and his actors are reflections of that. The story begins to wear thin near the end, and the final scare is something to laugh at. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is the first two-thirds of a more than average horror film with a few flaws, but the film ends as a middle of the road film that is merely passable with highlights of brilliance and a collection of failure. Tropes or not, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” isn’t the worst horror film I’ve ever seen, but not one worth mentioning to others to go see.