THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT Review: Home Invasion Leaves Home

A crisis of identity prevents the sequel from spreading its wings.

Home invasion movies follow a pretty simple formula. Establish a home and the characters in it; have some invaders violate the perceived sanctity and safety of that home; shake for a while and see what human nature leads the characters to do. The Strangers (2008) was almost the platonic ideal of the genre: ninety minutes of no-frills home invasion terror whose apparent pointlessness was all part of the point.

The Strangers: Prey At Night is a sequel to that film, though outside its masked killers (Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask), there's no real connection between the two. This time around, the story follows a family - Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, and two older-teen children - as they visit their uncle and aunt's trailer park, only to find it apparently deserted - for a time. But then a mysterious figure shows up at the door, asking if Tamara's home, and as anyone who's seen the first movie can tell you, shit starts hitting the fan soon thereafter.

Immediately, the trailer-park setting creates issues for Prey At Night's sense of tension. For one thing, this isn't the central family’s home; it's an alien setting to them, too, which robs the film of one of the key elements of a home-invasion thriller. More disastrously, the film takes place across a broad swathe of the park, replacing claustrophobia with a meandering sense of open space, without really establishing any clear sense of geography. Characters walk, run, and drive around the park with great urgency, but it's never clear how far their destinations are or how difficult it'll be to get there. You end up constantly wondering why the protagonists don't just leave; it's only late in the film that the park's revealed to be surrounded by barbed wire.

Not helping matters is that the central family is a bore, with lots of vague allusions to backstory but precious few specifics to latch on to. Worse, barely any of the exposition in the film's dreary first half hour affects the rest of the movie; one throwaway line creates a late-movie action beat, but it's not even played as the triumph over personal history that it could have been. The cast clearly struggles with the material, too, doing their best but failing to create three-dimensional characters. Kiwi actor Martin Henderson's comically broad Southern accent only serves to highlight this issue; Hendricks barely fares better; and the two younger leads seem almost undirected in some scenes.

Despite the aimlessness of the movie’s plot and characters, director Johannes Roberts (of the hilariously self-indulgently titled Johannes Roberts' 47 Metres Down) does at least craft a couple strong horror sequences. A climactic encounter in a swimming pool, underscored by “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” provides arguably the film’s most iconic kill, while an exceptional, near-wordless scene between Henderson and the Man in the Mask dances delightfully along the border between dread and farce. Roberts also deploys a surprising number of long takes, often with slow, ominous camera zooms, to cover his dialogue sequences - an approach that doesn’t necessarily always maximise the character drama, but does manage to set up one of the film’s best and most unexpected scares.

Sadly, Roberts seems torn on the tone of his movie. On one hand, it shares a certain bleakness with its predecessor, its violence and drama presented with the same impassive eye. But this is also a movie that opens with pulsing synthesisers, sets its credits in “that retro John Carpenter font,” and frequently employs needle-drops - all ‘80s pop - to add irony to the proceedings. This is a movie trapped between being a fun slasher throwback and a genuinely dramatic home-invasion horror, and neither aspect feels fully explored or committed to.

Thankfully, Prey At Night makes no attempt to mythologise or explain its killers, keeping their acts of violence as inexplicable and seemingly random as they were in the first film. Though it does unmask one of its antagonists, it's not a character reveal so much as it is proof that these thrill killers are still human. Thus, one of The Strangers’ key components is preserved: the casual, meaningless nature of its killers and their actions. When asked why they do what they do, one of the killers responds simply, “why not?”. It'd be chilling if the movie's overall tone supported it.

In that respect, then, Prey At Night delivers the same intentionally pointless terror as its predecessor - but it takes more delight in it (and thus doesn't sell it quite as well). The original’s commitment to tension and tone worked far better than the slackly-edited split personality of this film - a comparison almost directly invited by slavish repetition of many of the first film’s story beats. Ultimately, by the time The Strangers: Prey At Night reaches its bizarre and unearned “gotcha” ending, it feels like it's been around 20 minutes too long. For a sub-90-minute feature, that's bad news.