If you would have told me back when the sequel was first announced that The Strangers: Prey at Night could potentially end up as one of my favorite films of 2018, I would have told you that you were completely off your rocker. And yet, here we are, with Johannes Roberts’ sequel defying all of my (admittedly low, but more on that later) expectations to deliver a more than worthy sequel to Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers that captures the unsettling nature of the original, and yet puts in some extra effort that makes Prey at Night still feel like it’s doing its own thing at the same time. As far as modern slashers go, Roberts has confidently crafted one wickedly fun thrill ride that reminds us that it is never wise to answer your door for unknown visitors, especially late at night.
The Strangers: Prey at Night starts off doing what all good slashers should do by getting us into the mood with a few kills (which it certainly does well), bringing the memorably masked killers from the original Strangers—Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and Man in the Mask—back into the fold. After they attack an elderly couple at a trailer park, Roberts introduces us to well-meaning parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) who are heading out on a road trip to take their angsty teenage daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison), to military school, with their other adolescent kid, Luke (Lewis Pullman), in tow. The troubled brood stop for the night, looking to relax and catch a little shut-eye before completing their trip, but a trio of homicidal maniacs has different plans for their evening, ones that involve a whole lot of murderous mind games and (as expected) copious amounts of bloodshed.
Whereas The Strangers is a quietly unsettling exercise in pure terror, Prey at Night is a perfectly blended mix of creeping dread and an exhilarating game of cat and mouse in which the antagonists raise the stakes in terms of their methodology and their savagery. Roberts is clearly doing his own thing with this sequel. He avoids aping all the beats that made Bertino’s original film such a standout effort, boldly crafting a slasher that plays out like a love letter to the subgenre while never getting caught up in the tropes fans have come to expect from these types of films. Roberts also utilizes an ’80s pop-influenced soundtrack to fuel the mayhem in Prey at Night, and while it's not unusual to see filmmakers using music from the past in modern films (à la The Strangers), his song choices add some unexpectedly fun weirdness to balance out the otherwise straightforward horrors of Prey at Night (the use of Air Supply’s "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" being my personal favorite moment in the entire film).
Also, this may not be something most folks will ever see, but prior to my screening of The Strangers: Prey at Night, we saw a quick intro from Roberts, who revealed that the biggest influence on him while working on this project was John Carpenter, including certain iconic movies from the Master of Horror’s filmography such as The Fog, Christine, and (of course) Halloween. I wasn’t quite sure just how elements from those three movies would meld together into a modern horror effort, but color me impressed because it all works amazingly well, and Roberts' genuine affection and excitement for the genre is prevalent in every single frame of Prey at Night. Also, his nod to Christine is just totally badass and filled me with so much glee.
On a visual level, The Strangers: Prey at Night has a deep sense of atmospheric dread to it, with cinematographer Ryan Samul effectively tapping into the seclusion of the film’s setting to heighten the panic and fear that Kinsey and her family experience at the hands of the trio of killers. As far as performances go, Hendricks' and Madison’s performances were the two biggest highlights in Prey at Night, but I must also tip my hat to Pullman for making his character, Luke, into something more than just the typical “good” sibling who is there to butt against the wild child antics of Madison’s character. The scene with Luke in the pool is easily one of the best sequences in the sequel, too.
Because I have such a deep affection for the original, I’ll be the first to admit that I had some pretty huge reservations about The Strangers: Prey at Night going into it. While I had always wanted to see more from this franchise’s unknown perpetrators of pain, digging back into this world some 10 years after the release of The Strangers just felt oddly timed. That being said, I think having Bertino return as a writer on the sequel (he penned this script alongside Ben Ketai), is a huge reason why Prey at Night feels like such a great follow-up—it fully understands what made the first film so successful, but also realizes that what fans want in a sequel is something that doesn’t feel like a half-hearted retread that’s just trying to exploit its memorable villains. In my book, Roberts is now three-for-three in terms of his latest directorial projects (here’s my gentle reminder that The Other Side of the Door is a pretty solid supernatural flick that ventures into some unpredictable territories), and he has quickly become one of the most exciting voices in horror today.
Oh, and regardless of however you end up feeling about the film, the one thing I can guarantee is that you will never listen to Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart" the same way again.
Movie Score: 4/5