The Strangers: Prey at Night opens in the late afternoon with two parents preparing the minivan for a trip to take their daughter to boarding school. As Mike (Martin Henderson, “Everest”) loads suitcases into the back, Cindy (Christina Hendricks, “The Neon Demon”) knocks softly on the door frame and tells her daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison, “Parental Guidance”) they need to leave, or else they’ll be late. Kinsey wipes tears from her cheek and comes out to the car.
After picking up big brother Luke (Lewis Pullman, “Battle of the Sexes”) from the baseball field, the family makes their way to Gatlin Lake Getaway, a trailer park Cindy’s uncle manages, to stay the night. Mike and Cindy try unsuccessfully to gather everyone together for a final family evening without cell phones and animosity and are interrupted by a late-night knock at the door. Standing in the shadows is a girl with long blonde hair who asks, “Is Tamara home?” She takes off when told she’s at the wrong trailer, and so begins a night of torment, murder, and chaos in a deserted vacation spot after Labor Day.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is the sequel to one of the greatest horror films of the 21st century, 2008’s “The Strangers,” a low-budget thriller about a couple terrorized in their isolated woodsy home. Unlike many of the horror films of the time that relied heavily on gore and torture for cheap scares, “The Strangers” reverted back to authentic dread and played upon the audience’s comfort levels — there’s nothing more terrifying than being unsafe in your own home. The original film turned suspense levels to 11 by playing with dramatic irony, showing the audience the location of the three strangers far more often than the characters are aware of it. It isn’t a film about drawing out their deaths; it’s about patience and psychological torment, and it certainly made people rethink their choices in real estate. The Strangers: Prey at Night, however, changes the gameplay so much, the only thing that remains of the original film’s effectiveness is the look of the strangers themselves (and a few throwback lines of dialogue). While the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei, “Closed for the Season”), Pin-up Girl (Lea Enslin) and Dollface (Emma Bellomy) characters have returned, they’re not even played by the same actors from the original film. This isn’t to say they’re ineffective characters, as Dollface is still as unnerving as ever with her creepy search for Tamara, but there are many missteps in the execution of this film.
Since the protagonist family members are in a strange “home,” the safety levels are already lowered. The trailer park is shrouded in mist and even the streetlights are barely doing their job. The park is bereft of any occupants, further amplifying their isolation. Confusion is a major player, as the family is unfamiliar with their surroundings and get lost easily in their attempts at escape. The three strangers each play a different role in their game — Dollface interacts with the family first, knocking on the door and entering the home at lot earlier than in the original film. The Man in the Mask drives around the park in his beat-up pick-up truck, blasting classics from the 80s as an indicator that this is just a good ol’ time for him and his friends. Pin-up Girl is the last to appear (in one of the very few effective jump scares that’s ruined for anyone who’s watched the trailer) and seems to be the stranger with the least amount of patience. The trio spends the evening stalking the family members around the park, teasing them with various weapons — an axe, knives, and even the truck itself.
With the new formula of unfamiliar surroundings, early break-ins, and interactions with their prey in close proximity, The Strangers: Prey at Night is nowhere near as effective as the original film. Most of the film’s 85 minute runtime is spent waiting to see when and how the four family members will deal with each of the three strangers and whether they’ll survive. I’m sorry to say there was more than one occasion when I looked at my watch and hoped they’d just get it over with already. The Strangers: Prey at Night is more of an exercise in how many different ways they can play cat-and-mouse than a film that causes you to apprehensively check the shadows in your backyard or surrounding your front door as you return home from the theater. 2008’s “The Strangers” stayed with audiences long after screenings, causing homeowners to draw their curtains and avoid answering the door after dark, and earned its place as an incredibly unsettling film well-suited for the horror canon.
Should successful movies continue their stories? “Why not?” Dollface asks . . . Well, this film is an excellent answer to that question, and stands as another example of why some movies (of which there are many) should not get a sequel.