It’s been nearly 10 years since we were introduced to the maniacal masked killers in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, but they’re being resurrected on the big screen this weekend, with filmmaker Johannes Roberts (The Other Side of the Door, 47 Meters Down) at the helm. The sequel, Prey at Night, follows a family (headed up by Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) taking their troubled teenaged daughter (Bailee Madison) to military school, with their son, Luke (Lewis Pullman), in tow. As if tensions weren’t already running high between everyone, our favorite terrifying trio shows up to cause more murderous mayhem, forcing their clan to come together and fight back in an effort to survive the night.
Daily Dead recently spoke to Roberts about his experiences at the helm of The Strangers: Prey at Night, and he discussed the pressure of directing a sequel to a very popular horror movie, the cinematic influences behind his visual approach to the film, how he was able to incorporate his own love of the genre into Prey at Night, and how his own cave diving experiences inspired his upcoming sequel 48 Meters Down.
For me, the original Strangers is one of my top 10 horror movies of the last 10 years. When I heard about the sequel, honestly, I was like, "How in the hell is this going to work?" It was interesting, because at the screening I was at, they showed the video where you're in your office and you’re talking about The Fog and Halloween and Christine as inspirations, so I was like, "Okay, so now, how are they going to work all these things into this pretty straightforward concept?" And then, after seeing the movie, I was like, "Oh my god, I get it."
Johannes Roberts: Oh great, thank you so much [laughs].
You have now directed three different films over the course of the last few years where, essentially, they've all come with a distinct set of challenges. What were the unique challenges on The Strangers: Prey at Night versus films like 47 Meters Down or The Other Side of the Door?
Johannes Roberts: With this one, the obvious thing was that I'm doing a sequel to a movie people love, but it's been 10 years, and so it can't relate directly, either. There was a whole minefield going on there, where I was like, "Christ, do I really want to get into this? This could go horribly, horribly wrong." And then I saw the way that I could bring myself to it.
I can't speak for other directors, but for me, if I can't put my personality on a movie, I don't know how to make something. Because if I'm not bringing my personality to this, then why am I doing this in the first place? But with Prey at Night, I just saw the Carpenter movie that I've always wanted to make. I saw the way I could just use the '80s camera techniques that I've always wanted to do, and to create the score that I've always wanted to have. I loved the first movie, and I think that will come across in the sequel. I really respect what Brian did in the first movie, but I also saw ways that I was able to bring myself into it, too. Whether people like it or not, I don't know yet, but I was very nervous about getting this wrong.
You and cinematographer Ryan [Samul] do a really fantastic job of evoking that feeling of isolation in Prey at Night, and tapping into the fear of these characters on a visual level. There are some really cool set pieces in this, too, especially the pool. How conscientious was it for you two to go out and make something that has a completely different aesthetic and style to it than what we see in the original Strangers?
Johannes Roberts: I knew I wanted Ryan straight off, because of his work in Cold in July. I just thought it was a fu**ing phenomenal movie. I love Jim Mickle's stuff. So, we got together, and I was just like, "Ryan, I want to drag out those zoom lenses that nobody does anymore." Ryan has a look when he shoots that you know you're watching a movie. It doesn’t have a realist feel to it, but it has this certain type of beauty to it, and we had fun coming up with all this crazy stuff.
Honestly, I made everybody's life a nightmare on this film [laughs], but it’s because I wanted to achieve this certain look. We were always wetting down all the roads and we just had the fog running all the time. I wanted to make it look like an '80s Carpenter movie, and we really, really worked hard to give it that feel. I could almost imagine that this movie is like a fairy tale, because once you cross that bridge into this trailer park, it's like you've gone to Silent Hill or something. It's a world in its own. I love horror movies, and as a fan, I like my movies to be slightly unreal, so we really had fun bringing that side to this film.
I also used The Exorcist III a lot as a movie that I referenced for this, apart from all the Carpenter stuff. I really liked what William Peter Blatty did on that movie, and I think it's a really, really underrated movie.
Absolutely. And it still has one of the scariest moments ever in a horror film.
Johannes Roberts: It does! Blatty really was all about going back and wide on that film, because he wasn’t a proper director, so he was using really dated techniques and really putting the camera in weird places and [being] really wide. I always found that really interesting and very creepy. There are some other fun references in Prey at Night, from Don't Look Now to Christine to The Fog to even At Close Range, too. We were throwing out some weird stuff as we thought about this film. We had a lot of fun.
The heart of this film is, of course, this family, but I would say the relationship between Bailey and Christina become the crux of it. Of course, every teenage girl has issues with her mom, which is something I know a few things about, too. Can you talk about tapping into the family dynamics, because when it started, I was just like, "Oh, okay. So, it's family and things are rough." But I loved the scene at the diner, and that's when you sold me on those relationships.
Johannes Roberts: Ah, that's great.
I was immediately in this with them, and just really wanted to see them pull through, and that doesn't always happen when I’m watching horror movies.
Johannes Roberts: No, it doesn't, and you know what? I was very worried. That was my big worry when tackling this project, was reading it, going, "Are we going to hate these characters? Is Bailee’s character, Kinsey, going to come across as a brat? Are we just going to want them all to die?" And that was a real big worry. It really just comes down to good casting. You have to get the right people, because a director can only do so much. What I tried to do on this film is let them all lead it. With the diner sequence, we just took the camera right back and we did the longest zoom lens shot I've ever done in my life, and we just let Christina and Bailee go for it. I didn't cover it in the three different angles. I didn't even do it a second time for safety, which meant we had nothing else but that one shot. I just let them pour their hearts out to each other, and it really worked. I feel like I'm taking credit for their great performances, which is what any good director should do, take credit for other people's work [laughs].
Martin, to me, felt like the dad that I had always wanted, and I remembered when Lewis' audition tape came in, he felt like the brother I always wanted, too. There's a warmth there between all these characters, and if you don't believe in this family, the movie is just dead. They were all so crucial to the success of this story.
I know we're almost out of time, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about 47 Meters Down. It ended up being 2017’s Cinderella story where it was on its way to Target shelves and then ended up in theaters instead, and did incredibly well.
Johannes Roberts: Right? It was pretty crazy.
For sure. And now you guys get to come back for a sequel, which is really cool. I know it's probably pretty early for you to even start talking about 48 Meters Down, but what are you looking forward to the most about that experience?
Johannes Roberts: Nothing, nothing at all [laughs]. You never want to do an underwater movie as a director, so no, I'm not looking forward to anything on that movie. But in all seriousness, it was a great experience to see the movie land the way that it did. I've never experienced anything like that—people came out and the movie just worked. Now, I get to go off and basically do The Descent underwater. It's going to be really cool and terrifying. I learned how to cave dive while I did 47 Meters Down, and I remembered when I did it, I came out and I was like, "If we ever do a sequel, that's where we're doing it," because it's the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. I am excited, but shooting underwater is not a huge amount of fun, if I’m being honest with you. But I know it’ll be worth it.