How To Optimize Your Strangers: Prey At Night Experience!
The slasher film is coming back, whether you like it or not.
Over the weekend Prey At Night Johannes Roberts’ sequel to Bryan Bertino’s sleeper hit The Strangers, made a small but mighty splash at the box office. Opening in a respectable 2,400 theatres puts them on the lower end of the national distribution average for wide release films. But, with an average of $4,000 per screen The Strangers: Prey At Night walked away with a weekend domestic gross of $10.4 million.
While no one ever expected Prey At Night to topple the Billion Dollar Beast Black Panther or the hotly anticipated Ava Duvernay adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, we also didn’t expect it to do so well financially out of the gate. The film was made for an estimated budget of $5 million, so in opening weekend alone they’ve doubled that investment (this isn’t counting overseas numbers or the vast financial costs of Marketing and Publicity that may not be factored in to the public estimated budget). Wrinkle aside, the only other debut films to make the top 10 charts was the hilariously fascinating The Hurricane Heist that brought in $3 million for being a film about a bank heist...during a hurricane. (Side note: Hush, the movie looks fun AF). The other newcomers this week, Gringo and Thoroughbreds, failed to break the top 10. It should be noted though that the genre favorite Thoroughbreds only opened on 549 screens for an average of $2,200 per theatre which would have put it well within the Top 10 of this week if it had been released as wide.
Prey At Night comes five months at the most surprising box office hit: Happy Death Day. Why surprising? Because we never see unanimous praise, critically and financially, for a slasher film. And there’s no two ways of cutting it, the film is a slasher unlike one we had seen in ages. On an estimated budget of less that Prey At Night, Happy Death Day smashed records by opening #1 with $26 million. That’s a grand and some change shy of $10,000 per screen. For a SLASHER. The last time we had a pseudo-slasher film come out was Home Invasion Horror You’re Next that premiered after years of distribution problems with $9 million, which is great since this was a weekend where We’re The Millers made $18 million.
A few other interesting notes about this. The Strangers when it premiered 10 years ago, two months from now, also debuted in the #3 position with a heavy $20 million opening as it battled for the top spot with the release of the long gestating Sex and the City film and behind the baffled audiences who were still seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for the second week in a row. It was the summer of 2008 and audiences had very little to get excited for at the box office. Who remembers the film What Happens In Vegas (it was #6 that week). How about Made of Honor? The Visitor? Who even saw Prince Caspian? Remember, a decade ago no one gave a shit about horror. They still don’t, despite it clearly capturing the cultural conscience over the last ten years. And what happens when we horror fans only have one horror movie, not to mention one as viscerally effective as The Strangers get released?
That’s all we see.
All of us.
I fucking saw it twice on opening weekend.
So it makes sense that the numbers are high (The Strangers finished with a worldwide gross of $82.3 million), despite being cut in half the following weekend when everyone decided to go see You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (proof that Judd Apatow is far from Midas), I guess? But within the decade spanning between The Strangers and Prey At Night, the face of the horror genre has changed yet again. In the immediate, audiences find horror acceptable again. Don’t misconstrue my sentiment to mean “watered down for public consumption”, bur rather after almost seven years of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story audiences that a decade ago may not want to feed their fear are. People have seen blood spraying, head exploding violence on TV...and now they’re looking for it in film.
We’ve also changed the stories that we crave. While The Strangers was a bleak nihilistic descent into home invasion hell, that’s not what Prey At Night is. It’s also not what it should be. What horror offers us today is a ratcheting tension/release of the anxieties that we can’t afford ourselves to leave at the cinema door anymore. I’ll sometimes scold myself for not allowing myself to fall deeper into a film, unsullied by a barrage of nuclear fears and Presidential incompetence. Trust me, I’d like to watch a film and not think about the world, but then...why watch a film? But with something like Prey At Night, which is merely intangibly commenting on the state of the world, we do not need the additional nihilism that the original Bertino film gave.
Because that movie is already called The Strangers.
And I guarantee you were, at least secretly, livid by the ending of THAT film. And why wouldn’t you be? After 90m of unrelenting brutality, both physically and emotionally, we wanted catharsis. You wanted to rip their masks off, slap them (at least), and scream “Fuck you, white people!”, but as the trio filed into their purring truck at the conclusion, we shuffled into the night numb. A privilege we took for granted. But in 2018? Numb is the emotional norm that only levity can solve. Prey At Night is the levity The Strangers always needed. That’s why to get the best experience out of watching this sequel is to make it into a double feature. Go into Prey at Night amped up from the actions of Doll Face, Man in the Mask, and Pin-Up Girl, because the sigh of relief you were wanting in the original is finally delivered in the sequel. The gift and the curse of The Strangers was it’s unrelenting austere. In post 9/11 horror cinema, we were craving a stylized depravation, a way to make us feel after the tragedy of 2001. But today our world embodies the phrase “We must laugh, or else we shall cry.” Prey At Night isn’t a comedy, it still retains a modicum of the senseless violence we were expecting, but it does give us the hope and drive that we must keep pushing forward to survive, as frightening as that is. We need hope in cinema. Hope is all we have left.
If Prey At Night had come hot on the heels of the original The Strangers, I have a feeling critically it would have been treated better. Do some introspection and try to recall your feelings when you left the cinemas in 2008. What did you want to see? You’ll never change the fact a sequel was made, so you’re dispensing energy carelessly if you hitch your wagon to that. But ask yourself, if the sequel more closely resembled the original, how upset would you have been that is was derivative? And if that’s so then, frankly, what the hell did you expect?
Will Prey At Night help slowly drag the slasher film back from the grave to rear it’s ugly head once more? God damn I hope so, because the slasher movies are the “Rom-Coms of Horror Films”. We watch slashers when we’re sick at home, after going through a tough break up, or the loss of a job, or even more purely when we’re snuggled up on the couch and want to watch some mindless fun. That's the slasher film. That’s not saying there aren’t Art House Slasher films (PSA: Watch Tragedy Girls), but they were never meant to be more than popcorn entertainment. The Strangers: Prey At Night may have plotting issues and some paper thin dialogue (my colleague Amanda is on point when she says 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), but it works where it counts (dem zoom lens’ baby!) and ultimately had me leaving the theatre with far more pep in my step than I did after the original. The only Death Knell a Slasher Film has isn’t bad dialogue (Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2) or narratives frays (Blood Rage), it’s utter boredom. And while you may not enjoy this sequel, I dare you to find it boring.