It’s not often we get a sequel that improves on the original in every way by simply repeating exactly the formula of that first film. It’s even more interesting that The Strangers: Prey at Night accomplishes this by stripping away the one thing most sequels struggle with the most: a reason for being. While good enough on its own, we really didn’t need a sequel to 2008’s The Strangers. Where most filmmakers would use that as an excuse to throw in a bunch of useless world-building or mythology elements to justify the second (or third, or sixth) film’s existence, Prey at Night goes the other way entirely.
There’s this family. They have some normal, boring family stuff they’re dealing with. Mom and dad are dorks who might have been cooler in their prime. Their daughter is getting shipped off to boarding school because … she smokes? It’s not clear. And I can’t care. Their son is a jock, but the film doesn’t hold that against him. Then there’s a knock on the door, and the Strangers of the title (the same trio from the original, though that barely matters) show up and terrorize them over the course of a single night. And when that happens, all that other business immediately goes right out the window, and it’s a race to see how these four people will be brutally picked off, and in which order, and how long the survivors can outrun their tormentors. That’s it. And it’s great.
I’m always impressed by filmmakers who can sustain that tricky tone of rising tension and dread within the conceit of their story happening more or less in real time. And sure enough, the man behind Prey at Night is none other than Johannes Roberts, director of last year’s similarly simple yet effective 47 Meters Down, a film I will recommend at every opportunity. As in that film, Prey sets up its characters, locks them in a cage match with an unknown — and unknowable — threat, then lets the gears turn until it’s time to come up for air — or until the sun comes up. Both films get the job done, take their audience on a safely exploitive ride, maybe give you a little bit of goofy weirdness toward the end, then roll credits. Prey at Night even throws in a quick nod to another horror classic to which it owes a considerable debt, which in most other movies would feel cheap and unearned but here got a big smile from me.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, either. Another thing the film figures out how to do effectively — coincidentally, another thing I normally hate — is to use its soundtrack of corny ’80s top-40 hits and power ballads to create an almost unbearable atmosphere of banality to this brand of evil. The “Total Eclipse of the Heart” scene, strange as it is to say, is particularly effective.
Does that mean we need to keep making Strangers movies? Hell no. But a well-made lean and nasty splatterfest, I think this film would argue, can kind of be titled whatever you want. May as well be Strangers 3.
Rated R for horror violence and terror throughout, and for language.
Now playing at AMC River Hills Classic 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.