By a very thin margin, the only non-living thing in the world I love more than John Carpenter's Halloween is Bat out of Hell, the 1977 album sung by Meat Loaf and written by Jim Steinman. It accompanies me everywhere I go, if I take a car ride longer than 46 and a half minutes I usually put it on, and while I'll likely never actually do it, I mean it when I say that the only tattoo I'd ever get would be the album's iconic cover in its entirety on my back (yes, full color). And while this appreciation has of course paved the way for me to buy and enjoy most of Meat's other albums, my real hero is Steinman, who has written songs for artists as diverse as Air Supply and Sisters of Mercy, and more importantly shares my passion for excess and over the top ridiculousness. His involvement in something guarantees my interest, and I have sat through more than one movie I had little other desire to see just because I heard there was a Steinsong on its soundtrack.
Of course, that's not why I saw The Strangers: Prey At Night - as a huge fan of the 2008 original I had been looking forward to the film for literally a decade. At first I was disappointed original director Bryan Bertino would not be returning, but I quickly got back on board when they announced Johannes Roberts as the new director, as he has been making quality genre films for quite a while now, including one I ended up highlighting in my book (Expelled, aka F, which sets a typical home invasion kind of plot in a locked up high school), and finally had a big hit last summer with 47 Meters Down. Expelled proved he knew how to tackle this kind of horror, and as I had a personal affinity for the resort trailer park setting (keep reading) I was confident the sequel would measure up.
And that was before I knew it had two Jim Steinman songs! They come up near the end, playing over the film's two action highlights - an extended fight in/around a swimming pool set to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and the climax where a Stranger in a truck keeps hunting his prey even though the truck is on fire (think Christine), while his radio plays Air Supply's "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All" (which were, for a time in 1983, the top two songs in the country - Steinman being the only solo songwriter to pull that off). They would be the best two sequences in the movie anyway, but having Steinman tracks playing over them doubles their value, far as I'm concerned. If you want to know how they ended up in the film (plus some stuff about, you know, the actual movie) read on for my interview with Roberts, conducted last week just as the Blu-ray was hitting shelves. I have edited around a few spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film yet it's safe to read!
BC: When I saw the movie at a press screening, it was a pretty tiny screening room filled with people from other horror sites, so we all kind of knew each other. And it had a filmed intro from you where you talked about how the movie was a love letter to John Carpenter, and then when you talked about the music you capped it off with "I hope you like Jim Steinman" and half of the people there turned to look at me because I'm notoriously a huge Steinman fan, and I was practically jumping in my seat in anticipation. So I gotta know: how did you land on using TWO Steinman songs in the movie, which I don't think has ever been done before, and was it difficult to convince anyone to use them, or to even get those songs?
JR: Yeah it's a funny one. I'm a huge fan of Steinman, and it was always going to be "Total Eclipse of the Heart" for the pool scene; when we cut that together it was the first song we tried - and the only song we tried. And we didn't have a lot of money for it; there was no budget for these tracks in there, but I was just feeling it so we went for it. Then we were doing the ending and I just felt it wasn't working, we were cutting the end as like a suspense scene, a horror scene, and it just felt like it wasn't playing. This burning car wasn't frightening because it wasn't shot to be frightening - it was shot like "cool", like a big fun ending, and I said "You know what, I'm really into 'Making Love Out Of Nothing At All', let's put that over it and see what happens." So we put it over and it took us to something quite magical, and in the end people went with it. I was surprised; I thought the producers would be like "What the fuck, we got to the ending of this grim horror movie and you got Jim Steinman playing all over it!" But they kept with it, and at one point I even pondered, and we did a version, scoring the entire soundtrack with Steinman tracks. So we opened with "Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)", and then we had "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through"... I had them all! And Jim was fine, he knows his songs work. We definitely had to spend a little money to get them, but that he was cool with it all. Some of the other tracks we had to test various ones because the violence was a problem with some of the other artists, but Jim was great.
In that all-Steinman version, do you remember which track you had for the car scene where the Man in The Mask kind of looks for the perfect song to kill by? That was probably my favorite moment in the movie besides the two Steinman-tracked scenes.
Yeah that was the part we had to try the most different tracks. We started with Greg Kihn Band's "The Breakup Song" and that was how we cut the scene, and it worked great, but we found out they didn't want to do it. Then we tried REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" and they were great but it turned out they were not comfortable with the violence. But yeah, when we did this all Steinman version for a bit, and actually when we tested the movie, we had "Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through", the original Jim Steinman version, not Meat Loaf's*, and it was worked really well.
If I was in that audience I would have given the music a higher score on the test card! Oh well.
Speaking of testing the film, the Blu-ray is unrated, but it's not always the director making that call - do you know what these differences are? I didn't really spot any major changes...
Yeah, there's more intense blood when [the first notable victim] gets stabbed, and I think possibly when [the second notable victim] gets stabbed and definitely when the [the final victim] is killed.
So it actually is gory stuff! A lot of times these unrated things are just more dialogue or other excised bits they randomly throw back in just to say it's unrated.
No no it's gore stuff... They asked me if I wanted to put in the actual alternate ending into the cut, and I really fought against it. I got the unrated version of the first Strangers, and I watched it for the first time not too long ago, and I was so disappointed because it kind of ruins the movie. The normal cut is the cut you should be watching! When you have an unrated cut people always watch that because they think that's what the filmmakers wanted or intended, and it's not true. Adding back the more intense gore is fine, but the cut you saw is the cut I intend people to watch.
The Kinsey character, played by Bailee Madison - we are told she did something bad, but we're never really told what exactly she did. Was that ever in a cut, or was it always supposed to be vague?
We tried a few things... it was funny - we tested one version where you didn't know anything at all and the audience came back as a whole, saying "We want to know more what about she was doing." So we tested another one where we told you exactly what she'd been doing - and the audience hated it! It is quite an interesting thing; the only thing I can sort of relate it to is Escape From New York, you want to know why everyone thought Snake Plissken was dead, what happened. But if there was a version of the movie where we find these things out you'd say "I don't really want to know! It's boring!" So it's a funny one; quite often what an audience says they want isn't what they really want, they're interested and they SAY they want to know this stuff, but it's ultimately better not to know too much and just let people make their own minds up.
Well whatever it was, I just hope it was worth it since it gets so many people hurt or killed!
I noticed Bryan Bertino was credited as co-writer on the script - was he involved at all or was it more contractual credit?
He had no involvement; I have never actually met Bryan. He wrote the first version of the script and then a guy called Ben Ketai came on and really developed it, so that was the beginning and end of Bryan's involvement with the project. I'm not even sure if he's seen the movie.
Was that an actual camp that you guys used? I used to stay in a place like that up in Maine and it really felt like one of those summertime, family resort camps that turn to ghost towns after Labor Day. I occasionally go there in the off-season and even in the daytime it's kind of spooky to see it so deserted when it's usually so busy and full of activity, so it's a great setting for a horror movie.
No, we brought in trailers. I saw a lot of different trailer parks and we said you know what, it will just be impossible to film in a real one. And then we came across a great piece of land in Kentucky that used to be a housing development, and then the airport next to it expanded and bought out everybody, tore down the houses. So you have all these roadways going through, just this great landscape. And it's funny; two of the houses... it's like a Disney movie, two of the owners had fought against it so they had stayed. So you have this enormous plot of land where there used to be all these hundreds of houses, and now you just have two houses on either side of the place, these two old couples. They would come wander on to set and watch us film!
So what's next for you, and more importantly will it include Jim Steinman?
I got various projects at the moment. I think I'm about to go shoot a virtual reality piece, an underwater ghost story. I'm sort of really into virtual reality lately. So there are various things kicking around, one of them being 48 Meters Down which has a great script. But yeah, Steinman for the sharks, obviously!
We then talked about Steinman for a few minutes more, sharing our dissatisfaction with the most recent Meat Loaf album, and Roberts' disappointment that he hasn't gotten to see the Bat out of Hell musical yet (I did my best to convince him to do so, naturally). Alas, I neglected to ask him if there would be a third Strangers film, though I'm sure there would be no firm answer as the film's Blu-ray performance will likely determine that. The box office run was successful but not hugely so (it only made about half of what the original did, which doesn't exactly send producers racing to make another), but I suspect it will do quite well on home video, as these kinds of movies tend to unnerve audiences more when they're in their "safe" homes. Indeed, I've already seen lots of social media chatter (including some from our own Jacob Knight) praising the film's old-school slasher aesthetic and standout sequences, perhaps even more than I saw when it was in theaters.
The Blu has a few bonus features; besides the alternate ending none of them are particularly memorable, and it's a shame Johannes couldn't contribute a commentary, but that was a big part of why I agreed to do an interview (I usually decline them on account of my day job), as the commentary probably would have answered my Steinman questions and denied me the rare occasion to talk about him with anyone else who even knows who he is. It also got me to rewatch the movie sooner than I would have otherwise (I very rarely watch a film twice in one year these days), and I found I liked it more the second time around, now that I knew it was more of a slasher than the suspense/tension-driven original and could appraise it more fairly (my original review is rather mixed, full disclosure). I still wish a particular character wasn't offed almost as soon as the Strangers made their grand entrance, and while I've mostly resigned myself to a primarily digital world I truly think it should have been shot on film (Super 16, specifically) to really nail that vibe they were going for, but otherwise I think it's as successful a followup as possible. If you missed it in theaters, check it out now, and get ready to buy the soundtrack shortly thereafter.
*For those curious, "Rock and Roll Dreams" is one of the songs that was meant to be recorded by Meat in 1981 for the followup to Bat out of Hell. When Meat lost his voice, Steinman sang all of the songs himself for an album called Bad For Good. Over the years Meat has gotten around to singing most of the songs on the album, several of which (including "Rock and Roll Dreams") were on 1993's Bat out of Hell II. Few would say Steinman's versions are superior, as he doesn't have quite the iconic voice Meat does, but they're definitely worth checking out if you're a fan. And I don't think any of them have been used in a movie before, so that would have been very cool to hear/see. Oh well.