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Review: "The Strangers: Prey At Night"

It's kind of hard to believe that The Strangers came out almost ten years ago. I wasn't too thrilled about the film back then and it's slipped from my memory since. Still, it's hard to understand why it took so long for a sequel to get churned out, considering the first film was a surprise hit for a seemingly elementary premise: A couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) is terrorized inside their vacation home by three masked murderers. The money shot in The Strangers, as many moviegoers already know, is of Tyler's character standing next to her kitchen, completely unaware of the murderous intruder slowly appearing the dark background. The shot is unnerving for two reasons: 1.) The evil figure dons a homemade Halloween mask made out of a burlap sack and 2.) The scene takes its time to linger, allowing our eyes to make the horrifying discovery for ourselves. Too bad the rest of The Strangers isn't as clever. It devolves into a "shock horror" gimmick, convinced that killing its marquee stars (with cold regard) will make up for a lack of inventive direction.

And now with The Strangers: Prey At Night we're invited to another scare-fest, headed by the same group of murderous masked villains (there are three of them) and a new family of would-be and probable victims. At the start of this film, a lower third title-card informs us that it is based on real events, which can cause some confusion seeing that we're now supposed to believe these masked murderers are part of some actual unsolved crime case -- one that is ripe for a horror movie franchise, no less. Whatever. We also meet the new family: The mother (Christina Hendricks), the father (Martin Henderson), the daughter (Bailee Madison) and the son (Lewis Pullman). Their names don't really matter, and I don't mean that as an insult. A lean plot like this functions primarily on visual cues and identifiers: these are the good guys and then those masked people are the bad guys.

Our family arrives for an overnight stay at a mobile home of an uncle from the mother's side. They're on their way to drive their unruly daughter to boarding school. For about half an hour, the audience is stuck with the wooden dialogue and tired archetypes (e.g. the preferred older son plays baseball!) before things get cooking. Suddenly, there's a knock on the door. A woman (we can't make her face out in the shadows) ominously asks the family a question that fans of the first film will recall. Then it's off to the races.

I have to say that I enjoyed The Strangers: Prey At Night much more than the original film, even with its stale first act. At a lean 81 minutes (and that's including credits) director Johannes Roberts doesn't waste too much time for further exposition in the last two-thirds of the film and he crafts some effective set pieces, from the chilling scene in the front of a truck that is almost entirely silent if not for the radio music (and the ice pick) to a rousing showdown between the burlap sack-masked killer and his intended victim set inside a closed public pool. That pool scene is scored by Bonnie Taylor's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and bravo to Roberts for making us process the lyrics, "Turnaround bright eyes, but every now and then I fall apart..." to fucked up, bloody imagery.

Of course, Prey At Night is littered with moments of characters making stupid choices. I was reminded of a scene in the horror-spoof Scary Movie where Marlon Wayans was asked what he would say to a victim who was killed earlier in the film and Wayans yelled, "Run, bitch, run!" I guess characters in films like Prey At Night need to make incredibly ill-advised decisions because then the plots wouldn't work and the kill-count would stop. Regardless, Roberts' film delivers the thrills and credit must also be given to cinematographer Ryan Samul for shooting Prey At Night as if it were a 1970s Antonioni film, giving an artsy twist to the scares. Where the original Strangers started off strong and ended on a weak note, Prey At Night starts off weak and ends mostly strong.

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