This review contains spoilers!
Sequels are tricky.
Not only do you still have to create something enjoyable, but you have to worry about doing something new while still honoring the original source material. I think horror sequels are the toughest to manage.
Last year, I wrote about 2008’s The Strangers – probably my second-favorite horror film ever and arguably in my top ten all-time. One of my biggest talking points on the film is its originality and how well it stands on its own. As much as I love checking out the twenty-eighth Jason movie, something original outside a franchise strikes my interest more.
So then, when a sequel to The Strangers was surprisingly announced, I was both interested, and a little turned off by it. However, after ten years between the two films, there was a feeling aside from the returning trio of killers that both films are connected merely by name. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing? At first glance, Prey at Night can feel like a carbon copy of its predecessor. The Man in the Mask, Pin-Up, and Doll Face encircle a family going through turmoil. Despite our killers following their M.O., this is no repeat performance.
For the 2018 film, writer Bryan Bertino returns, this time handing the directing duties off to Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down, upcoming Resident Evil reboot). A family of four – parents Cindy and Mike (Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson) and two children, older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) and sister Kinsey (Bailee Madison) stop to spend the evening at a trailer park during its off-season on their way to bring the daughter to a new boarding school.
These plans pack the earlier scenes with familial tension- driving a strong divide between Kinsey and the rest of her family. The “misunderstood black sheep teenage daughter” trope is pretty played out, but it fades out relatively quickly here. So, while it’s a bit of a sour taste early on, it helps to establish the family dynamic and doesn’t take over too much of the movie.
Although Kinsey’s early characterization is forced and in-your-face, one of the best features of Prey at Night and the strongest contributing factors (and perhaps with horror in general) is its ambiguity. If you watch this one after seeing the first film, you can assume that it takes place after. (the first film ending after the killers assuring “next time will be easier.”) Yet, even the first film leaves things pretty unclear with just about when or where things are happening. With Prey at Night, most of the soundtrack is 80s pop. The trailer park looks like it’s from the early 70s. The mobile home still uses an analog answering machine, but all four characters have cell phones. Not knowing the time or the place is one thing, but having arrows point in so many directions feels like an intentional misdirection and keeps the viewer off-center. The movie could be set anywhere and like the first film, that sense of normalcy is chilling.
Despite what some reviews and critics said after the initial release (which, to be fair, some of it is valid – the time between the films didn’t do it any favors), there is plenty that could be said for Prey at Night to put it into the ranks of other successful sequels.
First, the soundtrack is perfectly eerie. A slasher flick set to an 80s jukebox on shuffle is so … oddly unsettling? The first Strangers’ score was strange and scratchy, creeping its way through an empty home. Here, it’s bright, cheery radio pop while the three attackers terrorize a family throughout a mobile home park. It’s such a dark dichotomy that helps to carry the film. I never had a list of “the worst songs to be murdered to” before, but I can confidently say now that Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” has shot to the top of that list.
There is so much more that I could say here to defend this film, but if there are those out there who may choose to ignore this one, then I’ll close by saying that they are missing out on one of my favorite shots/scenes in recent years. Dubbed “The Pool of Blood” scene, this three-minute sequence is an absolute master-class in tension-building, fight choreography, soundtrack choice, sound mixing, and lighting. I watched it in the theater and had to hold back outward audible applause. I bought the Blu-ray just to watch it in high definition and hopefully hear some director feedback. Am I hyping it up too much? Yeah, sure, probably. While the movie itself is already worth watching, it would be for just this scene alone.
The first time I saw The Strangers, I walked away in terror. It was the simplest, most real horror film I had ever seen, and still to this day I don’t know that anything could match it. Watching Prey at Night the first time, I left … indifferent. It wasn’t what I was fully expecting, but I was still pleased and entertained. I had expected another stalking home invasion film set in an expanded setting.
Instead, Prey at Night delivers a pure 80s slasher flick that holds up its end of the bargain. It also provides a handful of homages to the classics that came before it with plenty of slicing and dicing and blood to spare. Prey at Night isn’t the instant game-changer that its predecessor was, but it need not be as we’ve already seen that movie. With a killer soundtrack and masterful moments of cinematography, Prey at Night is a monster all its own.