Upon entering the Strangers Experience attraction in Hollywood, our group of five were told to feel free to explore the area, which consisted of a small yard, a truck, and a mobile home. We had only done that for a few seconds before a very upset young woman ran out from behind the truck, begging for our help but also taking the time to ask us our names. A few moments later, one of the Strangers appeared, and things really kicked into high gear in that haunt experience way, as we were chased into the mobile home that made up the bulk of the set, with the other Strangers joining the pursuit over the course of our 10-15 minute journey. I won't spoil the particulars for those readers who might be able to see it for themselves (it runs until this Sunday, Los Angeles folk!), but there was one part that tickled me, where we had to open a locked metal box and our "host" encouraged us to look for the code. Typical escape room stuff, really, but after a few seconds she said "Forget it!" and the survival horror activities resumed, the box never mentioned again. To me, the idea was that the usual methods of "surviving" these things wouldn't apply, and there was no point to getting bogged down with codes and other brainy activities when simply running would do.
That throwaway bit of a promotional haunted house fell in line with the same sort of thinking that made The Strangers such a knockout when it came out in 2008, and why despite the long gap between it and its sequel (Prey At Night, in theaters Friday) there is still excitement about this particular budding franchise: it's not complicated. I revisited the original film the other day via its new Blu-ray from Scream Factory, and while I may not jump in the same spots I once did now that I've seen it a few times and know when they're coming, I am still impressed by how refreshingly simple it is. And thankfully, the sequel follows suit; as with the haunt I don't want to get into spoilers, but then again there isn't much to spoil - our trio of masked killers has returned to stalk a new group of characters, and that's that. We don't learn anything new about our villains, we aren't given stupid backstories about why they picked those masks or anything like that... and with one very brief exception, we still don't see their faces. It's not even clear if they're meant to be the same people that terrorized Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman all those years ago; they have the same masks, but since they appear to be the same age as well. Smartphone technology informs us that it's not supposed to be the same time period as the original, so it almost feels like it could be more of a remake in a general sense, with just the location and protagonists changed.
And that's a good thing! I was surprised that they made no mention of the first film's events, but this approach means you are perfectly welcome to see this one even if you haven't seen the original (in fact you might have a better time with it, since their particular bag of tricks won't be as familiar to you). And connecting the two films would just lead to potential "over-plotting" that would distract away from the simplistic appeal of these killers. If we are stopping to think about things like "What have they been doing?" and "Where did Liv Tyler go?", that means we're not being caught up in the straightforward terror that has now been cemented as the series' calling card. We have waited a long time to see these creepy bastards again, and if you want to spend that time finding out what makes them tick, or wishing you could be seeing Ms. Tyler going through the same thing again, then you clearly haven't been paying attention to your horror history.
I mean, we don't really have to make much of a leap to compare The Strangers to Halloween, as the masked antagonists of both films were seemingly motiveless and choosing victims at random. We knew Michael Myers' name and a bit of his history thanks to the prologue, but the bulk of the film has him following Laurie, Annie, and even Tommy around for the better part of a day, toying with them and taking his time before going in for the kill. He does things that don't make a lot of sense, like dragging a tombstone all the way across town to place it in a bed, or bringing a guy he killed on the first floor up to the second and hanging him upside down in a closet, but that's part of what makes the first film such a masterpiece: the complete lack of understanding why he is doing anything he is doing, making him an unpredictable force of evil and far more terrifying. It also helped the audience identify with Laurie and the others; the "this could be me" feeling is never more apt when the victims were seemingly chosen at random.
The people who made the sequels (yes, including John Carpenter himself) botched this, giving him excuses for what he was doing, which not only ruined his mystique but also retroactively added confusion to the first film if you watch it "knowing" his real motives. If Laurie is his sister, why is he following Annie and Tommy around? If he is a pawn for a cult on a particular mission, why did they make the poor bastard drive all the way to Haddonfield when they could have given him a lift (and some clothes)? What part of Dr. Wynn's plan required him to keep hanging out in the Wallace house killing everyone when his true target was across the street? And this sort of thing isn't limited to Halloween, unfortunately. I recently had to revisit Jason Goes To Hell for a podcast that was focused on that particular installment (which is one of my least favorites in the entire series), and before long I was once again throwing my hands up at the idiotic body swapping plot, which was ostensibly created to explain the seemingly supernatural elements of the previous films (like how he got back to a proper Jason body after turning into a child at the end of the previous film), even if it doesn't match up to its own rule about them. Well if he can just swap bodies around, why the hell has he been sticking with his maggoty corpse for the previous three entries? And if the FBI *has* been aware of all the killings in Crystal Lake, what the hell took them so long to do anything about it? The more they try to make sense out of it, the less sense it actuallymakes.
Of course, comics and online fan theories will answer these questions for those who might seriously want the answers, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The real issue is that by introducing such question-raising plot points in the first place, you're forcing the audience (or, at least, the part of the audience that engages with the material being presented to them) to be thinking too much about things like family trees when they should just be running a gamut between feeling a bit unnerved to being full blown terrified by the on-screen action. As I've said a million times, jump scares and "boo!" moments tend to not work on me, but The Strangers is one of those rare and lauded exceptions. Plus, in addition to my first viewing giving me plenty of those jolts, I distinctly remember being at home either that night or the following one and seeing the thin crack of light under my front door being momentarily disrupted by a shadow, and it freaked me the hell out as I was convinced it was a stranger (or a Stranger) prepping to break in and kill me. To this day I don't know what it was; I assume a stray cat or something since there was no accompanying sound of my neighbor entering their apartment directly across from our door, but that's also probably why I still remember it and get a slight chill when I think about it - it's an unanswered question. The movie got in my head a bit, so I wouldn't/couldn't have been on edge in my own home for the next couple days had it not been stripped down to the essentials. Now that I have a kid my occasional nightmares tend to be about him, so when I have one because of a horror movie, I tend to be oddly grateful for the departure. Dreaming about getting stabbed to death by some creepy dude in a mask is definitely preferable to dreaming that my son had been kidnapped or something.
Watching it again, I started thinking again about how the editing almost seems to be painting James (Speedman) as a potential killer, or at least mastermind for their seemingly random attack. He insists on leaving for a very pointless errand right before they show up for the first time, and then later he is removed from the action for a while, isolating Kristen (Tyler). It would have been very easy to introduce a plot twist that he was either one of the masked strangers himself or had hired them to kill her for whatever reason (maybe a pre-organized "Plan B" in case she turned down his wedding proposal, which she did). Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know, but either way I couldn't have been more relieved to discover he was not involved in any capacity, and that they truly were just targeted "because they were home". And as much as I love Ms. Tyler (you know why), I was equally relieved to discover she was not involved in the sequel, as that would mean they were going after her specifically - which would make the film less scary. It's their random selection of both location and targets that give them their power to scare - the moment the plot turns into some sort of revenge or tying up loose ends kind of scenario, it's severely impacting the ability to access that part of the brain of a viewer that thinks it might happen to them. Maybe if the series continues (hopefully at a faster rate than "every ten years") they can find some way to bring back a survivor or two in limited capacity (think Andy Barclay in the last two Chucky films), but for now I truly hope they continue changing up as much as they can for each entry, retaining only the memorable villains and nothing else.
Luckily, this back to basics approach seems to be catching on with the other series, with varying degrees of success. The plot of the new Halloween is under pretty tight wraps (believe me, I've tried to find more), but one of the few things we DO know is that all of the sequels' existence have been wiped out (again), making it a direct continuation to the first film and thus we can assume free of anything involving "Cult of Thorn", and also not asking us to believe that Michael survived anything more than a few gunshots and a fall. Whether this means they will throw out the whole "Laurie is his sister" plot point (an invention of Halloween II, which they're not considering canon) is unknown, but I wouldn't be surprised if it too got excised in favor of simplicity, and that's fine by me. As I laid out six years ago (!) in this very space, despite my deep love of a few of the sequels, I'm all for dropping any ongoing storyline in favor of just going with the general idea of a guy named Michael Myers stalking people on Halloween (though at the time I wrote it I didn't think they'd ever get Jamie Lee back, so I take back the part about getting rid of her too). Likewise, the most recent Saw film eschewed the Hoffman/Gordon saga in favor of all new people, carefully side-stepping the existing narrative (so as not to throw it out as Halloween is doing) but also keeping it standalone so that newer viewers wouldn't feel left out. I didn't particularly love it myself, but down the road as my memory keeps slipping and I don't have time to revisit entire series I know I will appreciate that I can watch it without needing reminders of who everyone is.
Obviously we don't know yet how the Strangers sequel will fare at the box office, but if it flops I can assure you it won't be because the film doesn't tell us their names or why they're so driven to kill random people going through difficult personal crises (this time it's a family of four taking their daughter to boarding school). As we've learned from the other series, the more you explain about your killer, the less interesting the films are and (traditionally) the less money they make at the box office (Jason Goes To Hell and Halloween 6, the most "backstory" driven of their respective franchises, are also among their lowest grossers and least liked), so there is no reason to ever assume filling in previously unknown histories and adding specific motivations for their victims is a worthy endeavor. And if it's a hit, I sincerely hope they realize why the films are working on audiences and continue down that same stripped-down, borderline anthological path. If some kid wants to write a Reddit theory on who they are and why they chose Liv Tyler and/or Christina Hendricks, fine - but please, keep that stuff out of the actual movies. Michael Myers stopped being scary to me the second I realized that all I had to do was stay away from Laurie Strode on Halloween night, but so far the Strangers don't have any particular holiday or type of victim that could cancel me out as someone they'd want to bother. Let's keep it that way - I want a few more years/sequels' worth of wondering if Pin-Up Girl is the one causing those shadows under my door.