What do you come to horror cinema for? For me it’s generally to be scared, to be unnerved, to be thrilled. For that to happen there have to be certain ingredients in place. Most importantly I have to care. The ability to be truly concerned about what happens to a character – whether it be that I want them want them to escape, or that I’m rooting for them to meet an especially gruesome end – means that I’m invested. A film can only get under my skin, can only scare or unnerve me, if it has first made me care. That’s not to say the only horror films I like, even love, are those that scare me, there’s nothing wrong with being taken on a good ride. Even if I’m not totally invested in the characters, a horror film can thrill me with its invention – a great piece of camera work, or an especially cool and splattery piece of gore.
‘Based on true events’, in that there have been murders before, Prey At Night doesn’t rely on the audience having seen The Strangers (a good thing, I’ve not seen the first film since it was released in 2008). The plot finds two parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) taking their kids (Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman) to a deserted trailer park owned by relatives, before dropping their tearaway daughter at her new boarding school. The night they arrive, they are attacked by three masked killers.
With only about 80 minutes to play with before the credits, the pieces have to be set quickly. Unfortunately this means that the characters are painted in broad strokes: concerned parents, disengaged son, rebellious daughter. Outside these parameters, there’s not much to them and while Madison (stepping up to more adult roles having been the cute kid in Bridge to Terabithia and the irksome kid in Adam Sandler abomination Just Go With It) and Pullman are fine, they don’t bring any great depth or colour to their characters or the relationship between them.
The first Strangers film fit squarely in to the home invasion horror subgenre. This sequel opens the playing field up, with characters ranging across a trailer park. Unfortunately, this sacrifices two essential strengths of the previous film. First, home invasion feels like a particularly personal violation. It’s a primal fear, the one place you’re supposed to be safe, your imagined sanctuary, becoming the most dangerous place you can be. Secondly, home invasion films have an intense claustrophobia about them; a sense that doom lurks around every corner and that you’re trapped in a sealed box with it.
The home invasion sequence in the film is one of its strongest. It’s familiar, but it is at least visceral enough and plugging into deep enough fears to be a little scary. It’s after that sequence that the film gets a bit silly. The area of the trailer park ground is shown to be large, with trailers scattered with relatively large distances between them. It does, then, strain credulity a bit that the three killers always seem to know exactly where they have to be. At a certain point I wondered if they had tracking devices that pointed out the most opportune place in which to lurk.
To be fair to director Johannes Roberts, Prey At Night is a reasonably stylish film. He does exploit the striking design of the masked killers well, and images of them lurking behind the protagonists can be visually interesting. He also composes a few good looking set pieces, notably a swimming pool attack that has its characters fighting above and below the water. There is also, with an assist from editor Martin Brinkler, one striking match dissolve from a close up of Bailee Madison’s eyes to the lights outside a deserted cabin.
The problem is that not one of these things feels personal. There’s not a single image here that isn’t familiar. Sometimes, as with the film’s climax, it’s so naked that you have to assume that it’s supposed to be a nod to the horror audience, but it all just feels hackneyed. This extends especially to the use of music. The recasting of familiar or upbeat pop music into a horror context is something that has been done to death in recent years and Prey At Night leans on that crutch over and over again. It’s a pity, because the use of Total Eclipse of the Heart might have been striking, were it not at least the third time the film had relied on the same musical device in just an hour. Music also defuses what might be another good scare, when Pin Up Girl first pops up behind Madison it’s an effective jump scare, unfortunately the score then gooses that scare over and over again, deadening the effect.
The Strangers: Prey At Night is difficult to get animated about. It’s not especially bad. The script is functional enough, the acting, similarly, is decent and the John Carpenter inspired visuals, while derivative, throw up the odd memorable image. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. There’s no acting beat that stands out, no character work to be invested in and if you’ve seen more than a handful of horror films you’ve probably seen most of this one. It’s all been done worse, but it’s also all been done better.