“The Strangers” (2008), chronicling a couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) cornered in their rural home by masked psychopaths, is a beloved cult classic. One of my friends counts it as his favorite thriller of all time. If you’re going to tell the next chapter in this franchise, you better not wade in half-hearted. Luckily, director Johannes Roberts (“47 Meters Down”) dives in to “The Strangers: Prey at Night” (now available for home viewing) with a smart sense of style while also respecting the theme and mythology of writer-director Bryan Bertino’s original.
A lot of the style comes through the music. The score by Adrian Johnston harkens back to “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” And the soundtrack features melodramatic 1980s classics like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”
It’s not a new thing for horror stories to use old songs and give them a chilling new context. Haunted-doll, haunted-house and demon-possession movies have been doing this for decades. And “The X-Files” memorably did it with the 1957 Sherman Edwards tune “Wonderful Wonderful!” in “Home.”
Songs from early in the recorded-music age are already kind of creepy, so that’s a short leap. But to find 1980s love ballads paired with a scared teen girl running from masked knife-wielding psychos strikes me as a new thing (I apologize if I’m overlooking another film or show). Roberts’ choices tamp down the melodrama from the 1980s classics when we hear them along with standard horror-film visuals – at least within the context of the film – leading to something cool and epic. (In an out-of-context music video form, I suspect it would be even more melodramatic, maybe even comedic.)
“Prey at Night” also works because it takes time to let us care about these characters. The first film has a dark air about it because the couple is going through a bleak patch in their relationship. Ben Ketai’s sequel script expands the scope to a family of four. Mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks), dad Mike (Martin Henderson), teenage son Luke (Lewis Pullman), and teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) are off to get Kinsey settled at her new boarding school.
Granted, this is fairly broad stuff. For example, Kinsey’s nondescript teenage rebellion is signified by a Ramones T-shirt that hangs off her shoulder. Still, the siblings have good chemistry; as they exchange insults and middle fingers, we sense that they don’t totally mean it. And Kinsey doesn’t inhale when she smokes cigarettes; she doth try to rebel too much, but that makes her interesting. Plus, Madison has both girl-next-door appeal and edge; she looks like a young Katie Holmes, and I suspect she has a great career ahead of her.
The family’s first overnight stop is at a trailer-camp park owned and operated by the kids’ aunt and uncle. It’s the chilly offseason, so no one is there except the owners. Helped by a subtle film-grain filter, cinematographer Ryan Samul gets mileage out of the victims running around the grounds of the park, which is in Kentucky in the real world (the fictional location is unclear). “Prey at Night” maximizes the disorientation one might feel in a park where you arrive after dark and every trailer looks the same, but also delivers nice set pieces like a gaudily decorated outdoor pool and an ancient one-lane bridge.
While it does repeat the original’s plot structure, “Prey at Night” – as I hoped – takes things a step further in the final act when our heroes successfully take down the bad guys. Yes, part of why “The Strangers” is admired as a chiller is that the bad guys win, but seeing that happen again would be unfulfilling. I appreciate the catharsis of seeing Luke and Kinsey find a measure of success as they fight back, and the film earns it by first scaring them to the brink and giving them plenty of cuts and bruises.
Thematically, the sequel is a repeat: The Strangers hunt down and kill innocent people because, as one of them openly says, “Why not?” If you don’t have any sense of morality or empathy, it would be a fun time-killing game. Truthfully, it would be great if all psychopaths kept their ambitions so simple, rather than seeking positions of authoritative power. Because, really, if they only wanted to hunt down and kill us with knives, we could blow them away with guns and be done with it.
Indeed, that happens here in one memorable wide-angle shot that demonstrates the brutal defensive power of a would-be victim with a shotgun. Yes, Kinsey still jumps at knocks on doors after she escapes the nightmare scenario, but if caught in this situation again, she won’t be easy prey.
So “Prey at Night” is a great springboard from the original, but I suspect a theoretical third entry will have to be something very different. After all, we wouldn’t want “Strangers” to be too familiar.