It’s not hard to be scary. Anyone who knows a few basic tricks can make a film filled with cheap scares. It’s much harder to be haunting, which requires more than technical skill (even if that doesn’t hurt). Released in the summer of 2008, The Strangers seemed to come out of nowhere, but anyone who’s seen the movie has a hard time shaking it. Written and directed by first-timer Bryan Bertino, the film combines a downcast tone — its first third is largely given over to a marriage proposal gone awry that leaves its central couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) looking at an uncertain future — arresting visuals, an unusual patience for long takes, and an alarming plausibility to make the story of masked intruders invading an isolated country home exceptionally disturbing. A decade later, a shot of Tyler’s character standing in the foreground as one of her soon-to-be tormenters emerges from the shadows remains burned in my memory, as does the killers’ eventual explanation for their actions: “Because you were home.”
Part of what made The Strangers seem so singular is because it was just that: singular. Like the killers at the film’s end, it just sort rode off into the sunset without a hint of when or if it might return. The Strangers: Prey At Night undoes that, and though it doesn’t come close to touching the original, it’s not the years-late embarrassment it might have been. That’s in part because it aims much lower than its predecessor. From the first notes of Adrian Johnston’s John Carpenter-inspired score to the retro font used for the title card, Prey At Night sets itself up as an homage to classic slasher films, and mostly does right by its inspirations.
Not that the original’s influence isn’t all over the place, too. Bertino co-wrote the script with Ben Ketai but cedes directing duties to Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down), who skillfully guides it through a set-up that then allows the movie to repeat highlights from the original film for a while. Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson co-star as, respectively, Cindy and Mike, parents to a pair of teens. Luke (Lewis Pullman) is a star athlete, all-around good kid and a stark contrast to his troubled sister Kinsey (Bailee Madison), a rebel who’s being shipped off to a boarding school for some undisclosed transgression. (Cinematic shorthand: She wears a Ramones t-shirt to establish her punk bonafides.)
Still, Cindy and Mike try to make it fun. They’re hip young parents — she wears a jean jacket with fun pins — so they decide to stop off at a mobile home owned by some relatives. A mobile home that can only be accessed by a single bridge. At night. In off-season. When nobody else is around.
From there, things progress as you might expect, especially if you’ve seen The Strangers: An odd visit leads to loud knocks, strange thumps, weird graffiti, and ultimately an outright attack from a mask-wearing trio of baddies, who seem to have spent the last 10 years getting increasingly better at menacing and killing their victims. (They’ve also narrowed their musical taste to early ‘80s pop ballads, thanks to a soundtrack filled with Kim Wilde, Laura Branigan, and Air Supply.)
That the characters in The Strangers never really made any bad choices helped make it effective. Unlike most horror movies, the film made it hard to imagine yourself doing any better than the central couple. They weren’t stupid, just unprepared, and they don’t make any wrong moves in their fight to survive, they’re just outmatched. Though the Prey At Night family seems lovely and likely to overcome their current familial tension if they hadn’t run into a gang of killers, they’re also pretty dumb, splitting up and running toward danger instead of getting in the car and flooring it at the first sign of danger.
Still, that allows Roberts to tip his hat to slashers past, especially the Friday the 13th movies and, in the climax, one of the most famous moments from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. They’re time-tested touches that still work but the most memorable set piece — a late-film showdown by a swimming pool — is also the film’s freshest contribution to the genre, a refreshing spark of the new in the middle of a movie that draws heavily on what’s come before, be it classic slashers or the movie from which it takes its title and its bad guys but not its ability to unnerve.