I’ve always been of a firm belief that horror movies should have a point, even if that point is dumb. Many of the slasher movies of the 1980s had a common point, which was that if you were promiscuous and did drugs, you ran the risk of having your guts ripped out by a serial killer/monster. And while this message is puritanical and ridiculous, it was something you could cling to as the framework for what you were watching. More importantly, such an understanding of the “rules” of a horror movie made it easier to understand the killer’s motivations and trigger behavior.
With all that in mind, what bothers me about the 2008 (!) home invasion film The Strangers and its carbon-copy sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night is that there is no point—everything is random, free of motivation. When one of the killers is asked by an intended victim “Why us?”, the answer is simply “Why not?” It’s actually one of the only moments in the new film that gave me actual chills because it basically confirms that the filmmakers didn’t concern themselves with backstory, hidden messages, or connections between predator and prey. All they have to do is drop a harmless family in the middle of nowhere, then have three killers drive in an attempt to skewer them one by one. The End.
I’m not even sure that counts as a movie, but since there was a camera rolling, picking up images, I suppose it does.
I grew up on horror; it was my gateway genre into loving all types of movies, and I try to watch as much of it as I can even today. The original Strangers did have an impact on me because I couldn’t remember the last time what is essentially a slasher film made me think “We are never safe.”
This is the stuff of paranoid fantasy, every parent’s worst fear, and the stuff of NRA propaganda (I wish I were joking on that last one). It’s a great, simple, utterly effective concept: three masked people pick a house at random and start terrorizing. So why doesn’t it work nearly as well in Prey at Night? I think the answer is fairly simple: we’ve seen it already. And while it still scares us to a degree, at least this time we know what we’re in for.
The family in the new film is a bit fractured when we first meet them; then again, nothing brings relations together quite like murder. Daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is the resident rebel (and we can tell this because she wears a Ramones t-shirt, with a red-and-black flannel shirt tied around her waist for most of the film). She’s gotten in trouble for something at high school, so her parents, Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) have decided to put her in a boarding school. Turning the trip to said school into a bit of an ill-advised family vacation, they drag older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) along for the ride and stop briefly at a trailer park/camping ground managed by relatives. Since it’s the off season, they pretty much have the sizable site to themselves, making the location the perfect isolated spot to be brutally killed.
As directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down), Prey at Night expands its playground beyond a single dwelling by giving the would-be victims and their attackers an entire woodland area to run around in, with various mobile homes in which to hide. The most obnoxious things about these masked killers—a man in a burlap mask and two women in doll masks—is that they fall into that school of slashers that always seem to know where their victims are or where they’re going to be next, so they can be right there waiting for them. Once we realize this, it steals a lot of the tension from the movie, since the thrill of the hunt is basically erased. As a result, the film becomes a waiting game of who lives and who dies. Admittedly, there are a few surprises in terms of the body count (I won’t spoil any particular character deaths), but I honestly stopped caring early in the proceedings.
I don’t get squeamish at gore and blood (there’s a fair amount of both here), and brutal killing in a movie doesn’t make me turn away. But it all has to be in the service of something that makes sense in the world of the film, however demented and wrong-headed it may be. The Strangers: Prey at Night is too empty for my tastes. A case could be made that the ultimate goal of the movie is to bring this broken nuclear family back together, but even that feels like a stretch. And let’s face it, there are far scarier things these days than the unknown.