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The Strangers: Prey At Night (Movie Review)

The Strangers: Prey At Night (Movie Review)
5 10

PLOT: A family of four on a lakeside getaway is viciously accosted – at night - by a trio of masked-up psychopaths in an empty trailer park.

REVIEW: THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT is a curious case indeed. Not only does it arrive a full decade after its minimalistic forerunner, it does so not from the writer/director of the original, Bryan Bertino, but instead from the writer of THE FOREST, Ben Ketai, and director of last summer’s surprise hit 47 METERS DOWN, Johannes Roberts. And so, what does this odd equation amount to? Well, not so much an iteration of the 2008 predecessor as it as a dashing stylistic pastiche that lovingly echoes halcyon day slasher films, the kind Hooper and Carpenter were belting out 30-40 years ago. Alas, the script wafts no such redolence, the kind Kim Henkle and Debra Hill would have turned in at the time, or even the more subtly subverted inspiration Bertino wrote ten years ago. No, in the end, despite a nasty brand of violent nihilism, despite the deeply passionate ode to yore, even despite the masterful craftsmanship of director and DP at times, PREY AT NIGHT can neither transcend the subgenre it’s blissfully bowing to, nor overcome its gormlessly detestable characters and dimwitted plot-holes. The short of it: good direction, bad writing, not a whole lot new added!

Gatlin Lake is the destination for a family of four, serving as one last getaway before Mike (Martin Henderson) and Cindy (Christina Hendricks) send their troubled, morose teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school. Her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman, yes Bill’s son) is a typical smart-ass teen who likes to give her shit, yet it’s his relationship with his sister that proves costliest in the end. Arriving not at a track of lakefront cabins as you might, instead the foursome stops at a secluded trailer park, where most of the vacationing tenants have left for the fall. Strange, no? Have you ever hear of vacation trailer parks? Not that I’m grousing too much, I actually believe one of the strengths of the film is its unique setting, even if the land seemed a bit too sprawling to be realistic. Anyway, we know the family is in trouble from an opening scene of our familiar farrago of fiendish murderers – Man in the Mask, Pin-up Girl and Dollface – as they cruise around the abandoned trailer park bumping kitschy, deep 80s pop cuts en route to menacing a poor old granny. This is meant to stand in for humor.

Unfortunately, the only thing funny here is how insipid the screenplay is. For an 85 minute feature – one less than the original – way too much time is spent ineptly laboring to make us care for these wooden, two-dimensional characters. The dad’s a dope, the son’s a smart aleck, the daughter’s a bratty ingrate, the killers are totally stiff and devoid of personality (save for Masked Man, who can’t kill without the sound of an 80s tune), which leaves only Cindy with any sense of likeability at all. This is a problem, particularly when the villains aren’t cool, original or scary enough on their own to really root for either. Slasher films can play it one of two ways. Either work to make the protagonists genuinely worthy of rooting for and the antagonist truly terrifying as a counter, or make the mainstays so unlikable that you’d rather see a kickass villain, say a Freddy Krueger, prevail over the unlucky lot instead. THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT can’t quite commit or execute to either, which leaves the whole endeavor as little more than a futile exercise in well ingrained retro-slasher style. A well exacted style, sure, but fort of a futile one nonetheless.

The curiosities compound. How can a movie shot so well and directed so deftly still feature such seismic plot-holes as a suddenly missing revolver in the third act? Or characters leaving family members, with no resistance at all, to their certain and sudden death? I’d rather not spoil the two or three other dumb decisions or instances of story absurdities, but instead reiterate that these ridiculous occurrences, in conjunction with the weakly drawn characterizations of the key players, can’t quite compensate for what does work in the film. And that’s the way in which Robert’s comports the violence, the way he uses long shots and slow tracking moves to mount a harrowing sense of anticipatory dread, the way lingers in ambient fog and channels sub-generic exemplars like HALLOWEEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW, et al. This isn’t so much lazy jump-scare fare, thankfully, as it is gory throwback stalk-and-slash vitiation. There’s a nighttime swimming pool sequence that stands out in its visual and aural flair (again, these 80s jams), there’s also a pretty droll sequence involving the Masked Man casually walking into the crashed vehicle of a victim, then sitting alive in the driver’s seat. The Masked Man produces a screw driver, scans the radio dial and waits to find the perfect 80s synth-hit to conduct his baleful business to. It’s amusing, it’s self-aware, and again, would be so much better if it were happening to people we had real concern for.

Added up, PREY AT NIGHT isn’t the long-awaited sequel-slasher retcon diehard fans of THE STRANGERS were hoping it’d be. That said, it’s far better than it might have been given how weak the script is, in due thanks to budding director Johannes Roberts, who injects a slick visual panache in a way that builds a decent sense of suspense. Still, in its starry-eyed romantic retread of golden age slasher fare, the nostalgia can only go so far, never able to surpass or outdo its many retro inspirations. The biggest take away here is that Roberts ought to stick to penning his own scripts, a la 47 and 48 METERS DOWN. Never let a STRANGER step on your turf, Jo!

Extra Tidbit: THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT opens wide today!
Source: AITH

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