Wednesday, March 14, 2018


(UK/US - 2018)

Directed by Johannes Roberts. Written by Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai. Cast: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Damien Maffei, Emma Bellomy, Lea Enslin. (R, 85 mins)

Announced almost immediately after the release of THE STRANGERS and in various stages of development for a nearly a decade, THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is the long-gestating follow-up to the 2008 home invasion hit that's equal parts sequel, reboot, and remake. Ten years is an eternity in the horror genre (to put it in perspective, the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was still a year away), and THE STRANGERS, itself a sort-of riff on Michael Haneke's 1997 downer FUNNY GAMES and the 2006 French film THEM (ILS), was an influence on later similar thrillers like YOU'RE NEXT, THE PURGE, and HUSH.  The original's writer/director Bryan Bertino hasn't had much success in the ensuing decade: his terrible follow-up film MOCKINGBIRD played like a found-footage mash-up of Rob Zombie and THE STRANGERS and went straight to DVD in 2014, and 2016's THE MONSTER got some acclaim but, like THE STRANGERS, had a terrific first half diminished by an uneven second. Bertino is onboard as a writer and producer here, with directing chores being handled by Johannes Roberts, whose 47 METERS DOWN was a surprise hit last year. Roberts is probably a better director than Bertino, and throughout this film, he demonstrates a knack for effective shot compositions and has clearly studied the masters--there's De Palma split diopters, there's some Argento reds, there's some shout-outs to the works of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter, and one neon-drenched sequence in a huge swimming pool that's undoubtedly the highlight of the film. But I've rarely been as back-and-forth after watching a film as I am with THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT. In the ten years since THE STRANGERS, one of the go-to tropes of the horror genre has become the incessant retro '80s fetishizing, particularly the use of throwback, synth-driven scores (YOU'RE NEXT, the MANIAC remake, IT FOLLOWS, STARRY EYES, etc) and the use of pop songs ranging from iconic to kitschy. Roberts really leans hard on that retro feel, with an opening sequence set to Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" before the title appears onscreen in a near-identical replica of the STRANGER THINGS font. That kind of reverence for a beloved era of horror was charming and cool and fun when it started becoming a thing six or seven years ago (perhaps this trend can actually be traced back to Daft Punk's score for TRON: LEGACY), and it has generated a resurgence of interest in that style of music, with Goblin and Tangerine Dream-inspired bands like Zombi and S U R V I V E, and even John Carpenter now releasing albums and going on tour with a live band. But everybody's doing it now, and with that one-two punch less than five minutes into the movie, I was already dismissively sighing, feeling grouchy, and waiting for Larry Fessenden and/or Maria Olsen to show up.

They never did, but THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is buoyed by some unusually strong performances for a belated horror sequel. With rebellious teen daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison, who looks like a young Katie Holmes) becoming too much of a handful after an unspecified incident involving two other girls, mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and dad Mike (Martin Henderson) decide to send her to a strict boarding school. Forcing elder son Luke (Lewis Pullman, Bill's son) to ride along, they embark on the two-day road trip to the school, deciding to stop off for the night at an off-season trailer park campground run by Mike's uncle. Sporting a Ramones tee and chain-puffing smokes without actually inhaling, Kinsey is an intentional stereotype of the sullen, brooding teen, and would rather sulk off on her own than play cards with the family. Mike and Cindy send Luke after her, and while the kids are gone, there's a knock on the door. So begins the incidents familiar to fans of THE STRANGERS: a loosened porch light bulb obscuring the face of a young woman asking "Is Tamara home?" followed by increasingly aggressive knocks on the door, land lines cut, dumb decisions, and cell phones smashed as a sure sign that someone's already in the house. While out walking and talking, Luke and Kinsey find a trailer with its door open and discover the mutilated, dead bodies of Mike's aunt and uncle and are greeted by a hooded figure with an ax waiting outside for them. Both parties (Mom and Dad, Luke and Kinsey) make a run for it, eventually meeting and splitting into two different groups (Mom and Kinsey, Dad and Luke) as the titular trio--Man in the Mask (Damien Maffei), Dollface (Emma Bellomy), and Pin-up Girl (Lea Enslin)--taunt, stalk, and off them one by one.

There's a few genuinely suspenseful sequences throughout, and Roberts uses space and the background very effectively in the way he has The Strangers and their creepy masks materialize out of darkness or enter the frame from an unexpected place. But the retro '80s thing just gets to be too much for its own good, so much so that in the final act, it's difficult to tell if Roberts is making a slasher movie or an infomercial for NOW That's What I Call '80s Power Ballads! Why are The Strangers suddenly '80s pop superfans? Why do they drive around in beat-up pickup blaring Kim Wilde and Mental As Anything songs? In one scene, Man in the Mask sits there with one of the dying family members in a crashed car and keeps searching radio stations until he hears Wilde's "Cambodia" playing. Why? It's exactly like one of the killers in YOU'RE NEXT sitting quietly next to a dead victim (played by...wait for it...Larry Fessenden!) while Dwight Twilley's "Lookin' for the Magic" plays on repeat. It's bad enough that The Strangers are suddenly engaging in the old horror movie staple of evil figures snarking it up in the sequels (as decreed in the Freddy Krueger Amendment, aka the Chucky Resolution) by having Pin-up Girl appear out of the darkness to crack to Kinsey "We're just getting started!" but now they're DJs at '80s-themed office party who need obscure British pop songs to accompany their killing sprees.

This idea actually works in the truly inspired swimming pool sequence--a minor classic of its kind and likely the only thing genre fans will remember about this--set to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which drifts in and out as the characters go under and emerge from the water. And if it was just that, it would've been fine, but then the long, drawn-out finale with multiple endings is pointlessly set to Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing At All." Is this a sequel to THE STRANGERS or Roberts hitting shuffle on his iPod and just seeing what happens?  That's the conundrum of THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT: there's some good stuff here but its fixation--obsession, really--with '80s nostalgia, with the overbearing synth and the '80s singles comprising a soundtrack in search of a movie, just gets grating and dumb after a while and almost completely derails it. This film exists in some kind of bizarro world where it thinks it's paying homage to the '80s but goes so overboard with it that it's paying homage to the homages. Isn't it a little premature to be making hero-worship tributes to things like IT FOLLOWS, STRANGER THINGS, and the filmography of Adam Wingard?

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