Review: When "The Strangers Prey At Night" Knocks, Don't Answer

“Because you were home.”

For a certain demographic, those haunting words have chilled us to the bone for a decade now--- ever since the release of the original The Strangers. I remember watching that movie and not expecting much… and then double-checking the locks on my doors that night. While The Strangers certainly delivers on gore and jump scares, it has a slow atmospheric build that creates a genuine sense of dread and apprehension in the audience. You are fully invested in Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as the troubled young couple holed up in a beautiful home, trying to come to terms with their relationship drama as something much more sinister unfolds outside. The premise of the first film is ‘show, don’t tell’, and even then, only show a little; for many scenes, the ominous threat is right outside the peripheral of the character’s vision, out of focus or half-shrouded in shadow, and the audience is shouting in dismay when they realize the killers are practically within arms’ reach and our protagonists have no idea.

As a die-hard fan of the original film, I was excited when press began to murmur about the release of its sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night. While the title felt a little on-the-nose, the inclusion of genre darling Bailee Madison (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Holliston) and Christine Hendricks (Mad Men), made me cautiously optimistic. When I was in LA visiting, I saw that they were doing a Strangers immersive experience, the latest marketing tool being used for publicity. The wild success of the It marketing this past summer (Derry school buses, the Neibolt Street Experience in Hollywood, and red balloons tied to sewer grates in many major cities) worked perfectly to generate buzz for the Stephen King remake, so it wasn’t a bad plan for a movie like The Strangers. Especially given the imagery in the film, which would lend itself very well to things like licensed haunted houses (are you listening, Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights?) and replica masks.

However, this new movie is a far cry from its predecessor, and one wonders why it even bothered with the namesake except to try and lure in fans with nostalgia for the original. From the opening sequence (set to the cheery song “Kids in America”), the movie is an entirely different beast than its source material. It is brash and loud and over-the-top, with none of the subtlety the original masterfully wove around the story. Even the title cards are jarring and flashy.

We are introduced to Kenzie (Bailee Madison), a troubled young teenage girl. How do we know she’s troubled? Well, for one, she’s dressed in fishnets and black nail polish, box-dye black hair, and eyeliner, and she’s sitting in her room crying when we meet her. She is sulky, foul-mouthed and overall the epitome of a cliché ‘difficult’ teenager to her attractive young parents (Hendricks and Martin Henderson), as well as her older, sporty brother Luke (Lewis Pullman). Kenzie’s parents are shipping her off to live with an aunt and uncle she doesn’t know well in a remote RV park because of her problematic behavior; while the drama is heavy, complete with tantrums, Kenzie refusing to eat dinner or take out her earbuds, etc, we find out that the horrible, intolerable behavior that’s getting her banned from her own home, friends and school is that she’s been ‘cutting class a lot’. Her parents repeatedly insist that they’ve tried everything else, and yet anytime we see Kenzie away from that family dynamic, she’s actually vulnerable and likeable and clearly not much of a ‘bad kid’ at all.

While driving to the mobile home park, her parents have trouble raising the aunt and uncle on the phone, so they pull in to the cabin where they’re meant to be staying. I can’t really figure out the location; it’s an RV park with a nice pool, an office, and a playground, but there seem to only be 3-4 mobile homes present and the parents make a comment about how ‘everyone leaves after Labor Day’, yet they are given a key to an empty mobile home as if this is some kind of cabin rental site. The trailers are arranged willy-nilly in a giant open field with a greenbelt and scattered trees spotting it here and there (giving huge sight lines of visibility in any direction; remember that, it’s important later) as well as only one road that leads in and out (involving a single-lane covered bridge over a lake) and the entire thing seems to be surrounded by a chain link fence. Got it? Good, me neither. I needed a map, I could never keep track of where anyone was. It lacks the ‘containment’ factor of the original, which was part of the terror.

Kenzie storms out of the trailer after a passive-aggressive standoff with her parents, and her brother Luke is sent after her.  While the parents are alone, we are treated to two separate knocks on the door, a shadowed girl asking if “Tamara is home” and then leaving abruptly when they say no. It’s a nice throwback to the original, complete with the porch light being unscrewed.

Luke finds Kenzie smoking angrily by the playground. What begins as the two sniping at each other quickly morphs into sibling affection, and they are joking and teasing each other when they come upon a mobile home with the door standing wide open. They decide to go inside because why not, certainly no red flags there, and inside they are startled by loud bumping and crashing sounds from the back room. Upon opening it, they release a dog that was trapped… and find the bodies of the couple murdered in the opening sequence (who are revealed to be the missing aunt and uncle).

The kids run to get their parents, who were out looking for them, and the males go to investigate the bodies while the women are sent back to the trailer ‘for safety’ (we won’t even get into that tired trope). When the girls get back they realize all four cell phones have been smashed on the kitchen counter and there is a visitor in the house--- it’s the girl from the door-knocks, wearing a doll mask and brandishing a butcher knife.

From here, the movie loses all element of what makes The Strangers what it is. Instead of subtle ‘hunting’ and the terror of knowing someone is there but not quite where or how, we get ham-handed, over-the-top sequences involving doors being smashed in, massive car wrecks, people driving their vehicles through trailers, etc. The killers have none of the quiet menace present in the first; these are ‘oogity-boogity’ leaping out of the shadows, popping out of dark corners, etc. The deaths are gory and gruesome, sure, but they lack nuance or any real consequence. Even when important characters die, the audience kind of shrugs it off and the grief of the other characters is downplayed in lieu of hurling them into the next chase scene.

 

Plausibility also flies out the window. Perhaps I’m just too critical for movies like this, but I like my suspense with some actual suspense. The horror of the original film, for me, was that the Strangers were humans, they were anyone. They were just young people doing it ‘because’. In this one, they seem superhuman. They can seemingly teleport and can survive wounds that would lay most people flat. The Man in the Mask in particular experiences some… let’s say devastating injuries, and he’s still in fighting shape by the end of the film. There are scenes where a masked killer speed-walks across a huge open field and no one sees them coming until they’re upon them. There’s a gun, quite literally, that never goes off or is used despite being by far the best weapon any of the characters begins with.

This isn’t to say the movie’s all bad. The effects are nice, with plenty of blood and grue for the diehards out there, and the kill scenes are effective, particularly a swimming pool scene and a use of pop music that will change how you look at Bonnie Raitt. Some of the cinematography is beautiful, and the core acting cast is believable and good (although after about 45 minutes straight of Bailee Madison’s hysterical sobbing and heavy breathing, and the fact that the bulk of dialogue in this film is “Why are you doing this?” or “Just leave us alone!”, repeated numerous times by all four protagonists)… the movie has some brief shining moments of greatness. It definitely falls to pieces in the last ten minutes or so, however, and whatever interest or investment I had made in the film flew out the window with gusto when we got to the final showdown between Kenzie and her masked foe.

After close to thirty years of watching horror films, when people ask me which ones bother or scare me I always say ‘home invasion’. Gems like The Strangers, You’re Next, and When a Stranger Calls are some of the only films which actually get to me, and to this day if I see a jacket hanging up out of the corner of my eye or something I’m prone to a mini-heart attack. Thanks to You’re Next every time I hear a creak in another part of the house when I’m alone I’m convinced that I’m about to be murdered. But the true terror in those films for me is the knowledge that something exists in that house, something is there in your safe space that shouldn’t be. Slashers like Jason or Michael Myers are scary because they’re unstoppable juggernauts with enormous body counts, sure. But those movies are fun and campy compared to the creeping horror of seeing that your cell phone isn’t on the coffee table where you left it or your back door is standing ajar when you know you locked it before you went to take a shower. That menacing idea of something just around the corner of your own home is much more frightening to me than the idea of Pinhead or Freddy Krueger. And even more unnerving is the idea that these stalkers are just normal people; it’s part of the appeal of films like American Psycho, The Purge, Scream, where the killers could be your neighbors or best friends or coworkers or complete strangers you ride the subway with.  When Liv Tyler sobs “Why are you doing this?” in the original film, and the killer slowly tilts her head and calmly replies, “Because you were home”, the simple matter-of-fact brutality in that statement is what makes it so effective. The sequel tries to recreate that and fails miserably; instead, we’re given a horror film for the late 2010s, where more is more and the answer to ‘how do we make this scary’ seems to be ‘throw more blood on it’. This isn’t nuanced horror, this is splatterpunk, this is a typical slash-and-chase, this is horror for the Instagram crowd. Blessedly, it’s also a short movie, so you only need to stop checking your Facebook for a little over an hour if you decide to watch it.

“Why are you doing this to us?” the audience sobs, and the producers whisper, “Because this brand hasn’t been beaten to death by direct-to-DVD sequels yet”, and we all feel a cold chill go down our spines as one.

Amanda Rebholz