The Strangers: Prey at Night is a weak attempt at creating a franchise from mediocre source material.
The Strangers (2008), a slow-burn home invasion tale starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, was in many ways a more entertaining version of 2007â€™s Funny Games, Michael Hanekeâ€™s remake of his own 1997 torture-fest. What set The Strangers apart was its compelling protagonists and their relationship. That filmâ€™s writer and director, Bryan Bertino, did particularly well to play to Tylerâ€™s natural strength, which is looking appealingly, unsolvably mysterious. The central concept of a couple that has fallen in love nonetheless trying to protect one another from assailants was novel, as was the endâ€™s big reveal, which was that their attackers werenâ€™t attacking them for any reason other than the fact that they were home. Then, just as The Strangers had one-upped Funny Games, it was outdone by 2011â€™s excellent, genre-busting Youâ€™re Next, which started with a nearly identical concept to The Strangers only to turn the tables and make the villains the ones who are hunted.
The point in demonstrating this progression is that by now, over 20 years after the original Funny Games, a decade beyond the original The Strangers and seven years on from Youâ€™re Next, the home-invasion thriller has not only aged but has been consistently built upon. As a result, director Johannes Roberts (who most recently helmed the surprisingly good shark tale 47 Meters Down) had a lot of work to do in order to make something original happen with The Strangers: Prey at Night; unfortunately, it mostly fails to do so.
The key issue here is that rather than search for a modern or subversive twist on its own genre, as Youâ€™re Nextâ€™s Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett did, Roberts and writers Bertino and Ben Ketai demonstrably return to classic horror for inspiration. Instead of making the film scarier, these classic influences only serve to make The Strangers: Prey at Night predictable and, at times, cringe-worthy (usually when one of the protagonist walks obliviously towards danger).
The plot finds a young family (led by Christina Hendricks ofâ€śMad Men,â€ť who is slumming it here) headed on vacation. They arrive at their destination, a rural trailer park, only to find it strangely abandoned. The setting is unique for a home invasion thriller, and sets up some of the better pursuits and scares later on, but unfortunately Roberts has looked to John Carpenterâ€™s Halloween heavily for inspiration. The pacing is too deliberate for characters as thinly drawn as Prey at Nightâ€™s, and the trio of invaders arenâ€™t as scary as Michael Myers. Finally, Halloween is 40 years old this year, and has been inspiring homages, rip-offs and copycats (in addition to its own sequels and remakes) ever since.
While the bad guys in Prey at Night arenâ€™t particularly terrifying, they are interesting in the sense that they seem to care very little about what it is they are doing. There are, of course, a few surprises in store, but for the most part the villains seem rather bored, which in itself has a kind of millennial angst to it that works well for the genre. It would have been interesting to see Roberts and company try and make something more out of this concept, as that in itself could have opened the door for a fresh look at the genre.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is a weak attempt at creating a franchise from mediocre source material. While it features an interesting setting and creepily blasĂ© villains, it doesnâ€™t make any innovations on its wrung-out genre and doesnâ€™t do any favors for the talent involved.