In 2008 there was a knock at the door, and The Strangers were born. Bryan Bertino's dark and foreboding home invasion thriller shocked many audiences with its brutality and commitment to its gloomy ending, and many fans have demanded a sequel ever since. Now, in 2018, we have that sequel in the form of Johannes Roberts' The Strangers: Prey at Night, and while the belated sequel is tonally a far cry from its predecessor, it is still a terrifying ode to horror that any self-respecting fan of the spookiest genre needs to see.
First things first, it needs to be said that The Strangers: Prey at Night bears almost no narrative connection to The Strangers. These are definitely the same killers from the first film (they even use many of the same tactics in Prey at Night), but this movie gets audiences into a new story from the get-go and requires almost no background. Set in a remote trailer park in the middle of nowhere, Prey at Night follows a loving-yet-dysfunctional family desperately trying to stay alive in the face of three mysterious assailants.
That is it. There really isn't much more to it than that. Once the family shows up in the trailer park, and we get that first knock at the door, it is pretty much off to the races with all of the blood, tension, and thrilling set pieces that you could possibly want. There are definitely more than a few cheap and regrettable jump scares in the mix, but otherwise, Prey at Night mostly relies on good, old-fashioned thrills that evoke some of the best horror movies of the last 40 years.
The power of this formula lies in the strength of the performances as well as the character themselves. As parents, Cindy and Mike, Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson feel believable in their attempts to maintain control of the situation and keep teenagers Luke (Lewis Pullman) and Kinsey (Bailee Madison) safe and secure. That said, when push comes to shove, the family ultimately chooses to fight back in a way that James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) never did in the first film.
As a result, The Strangers: Prey at Night relies more on adrenaline, instead of the original's nihilistic atmosphere; in fact, the nearest comparison that I can draw is the tonal difference between Alien and Aliens. The Strangers still feel like credible threats, but the family's unwillingness to go quietly offers up some great chases and even better fights that stay just within the realm of believability (which means not everyone gets out alive). On that note, Bailee Madison stands out as a particularly enjoyable member of the ensemble, as she has all of the makings of a great scream queen.
Of course, what makes The Strangers: Prey at Night truly stand apart from other films of a similar ilk is the way in which Johannes Roberts crafts a feature-length love letter to classic horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the film's best set pieces feel like remixes and reimagining of classic horror scenarios from films like Christine and Halloween (John Carpenter's DNA is all over this movie, and intentionally so), along with a few great original scares that feel in-line with tactics that The Strangers would use in their hunts.
However, it's not just the set pieces or murder methods that invoke a bygone golden age of slasher cinema. There's a clear attempt to recreate camera movement, cinematography, and mise-en-scene from classic horror films. From the fog that mysteriously rolls into the trailer park, to the neon glow of the oddly-festive pool area, to the way that static camera pans and zooms in wide shots, The Strangers: Prey at Night legitimately looks like something made during the earlier years of Wes Craven's filmography (albeit with better picture quality). The technique might read as a gimmick to some, but for this reviewer, it shows just how much attention goes into the smallest details in this movie.
This balance of homage and originality forces Johannes Roberts to walk a tightrope between reverence and rip-off. Such a creative choice admittedly leads to Prey at Night sometimes leaning a bit too hard into its love for previous films, but more often than not Roberts manages to add his own layer of authorship to the project and give The Strangers: Prey at Night its own point of view.
All things considered, The Strangers: Prey at Night is the first legitimately great horror movie of 2018. Stylish, thrilling, and downright scary, the film's tendency for homage might make it a bit less accessible for the casual viewer but die-hard slasher fans will likely find themselves enthralled by every frame. The Strangers are back, and it is our sincere hope that this is not the last time that they will come knocking at our door wondering if Tamara is home.