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Non-Review Review: Strangers – Prey at Night

Strangers: Prey At Night is the story of a wholesome family that find themselves menaced by a group of Kim-Wilde-and-Bonnie-Tyler-loving, smiley-face-making, Nirvana-quoting nihilist hipster dirtbags. So, it’s a true horror story.

Strangers: Prey At Night is perhaps the flip side of the nostalgic-for-the-experience-of-horror-cinema movies like A Quiet Place or Lights Out, in that it’s just a straight-up nostalgic ode to all manner of forgettable eighties era slasher movies. It’s a canny example of the horror genre’s ability to cannibalise what works, a film very consciously built on the successful nostalgic retro horror vibe that made The Conjuring and The Conjuring II such massive hits, but applying it to the direct-to-video masked-and-axe-wielding-killer subgenre.

Let us prey.

Being honest, it is a surprise that it took so long to see that approach applied to the reliable low-budget slasher genre. After all, the twenty-first century has seen a host of remakes and reboots of classic hack-and-slash films like The Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, but those films consciously emphasised applying modern movie-making techniques to older material. Strangers: Prey at Night does the inverse, applying an older aesthetic to a sequel to a newer breed of horror film.

The approach is intriguing, even if the results are unsatisfying.

The horror franchise that burns twice as bright…

The Strangers was an underrated cult delight, an update of the classic home invasion horror movie concept for the twenty-first century. In some ways building on the economic anxieties of the seventies and eighties that placed the family home as the site of monstrous horror in films like Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror and wedding it to the broader fear of social breakdown that defined horror movies like The Warriors or Assault on Precinct 13, The Strangers was a film that felt like a conscious synthesis of older horror tropes with more modern social anxieties.

Perhaps it was merely good timing, but The Strangers felt like a horror film very present in the context of 2008. There was something deeply unsettling in seeing the middle-class home presented as the scene of brutality and horror in the midst of the massive financial crisis, coupled with the obvious War on Terror resonances of the idea of a family discovering that their own home was no longer a safe environment and that they were subject to the cruel whims of outside forces even in the world that they had build for themselves.

Reflecting troubled times.

Prey at Night adopts the basic aesthetic of The Strangers; nihilistic villains wearing masks to conceal their identity, who seem to indulge in wanton destruction and carnage for the sheer appreciation of such violence. “Why?” demands one member of the protagonist family in Prey at Night. One of the killers responds with a manic grin, “Why not?” However, Prey at Night never feels present in the same way as the film that inspired it. Indeed, the film even swaps out the unsettling home invasion premise for an eerie trailer park environment; the protagonists are as much strangers in this land as their antagonists.

To be fair, Prey at Night wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s the obligatory sinister-hacking-implement-along-the-ground sequence as codified by the pitchfork in The Crazies. There’s a serial killer splashing triumphantly out of a still body of water like in the Friday the 13th films, which also seems to have informed the film’s holiday camp setting. Even the title card is presented in that old-school seventies style that audiences associate with The Exorcist. This is to say nothing of a soundtrack that is crammed full of nostalgic eighties hits, on those occasions when the synth isn’t pulsing on Adrian Johnston’s score.

What a sad sack.

There’s an aspect of the Strangers concept that lends itself to this format, with its nihilistic monsters serving as an anthropomorphised embodiment of the horror movie audience demanding their blood sacrifice, engineering their own horror movie premise and wallowing in the suffering that they inflict on their victims. Indeed, even the title Strangers evokes the phrase “stranger killings”, the early name for serial killers. So nostalgia isn’t the worst fit for this basic premise. “Wholesome family pursued by nihilistic psychopaths” is the cornerstone of a long horror lineage, after all.

Director Johannes Roberts certainly creates a loving homage to those trashy old-school video nasties. His camera often voyeuristically zooms and leers at the cast, chasing them through the night just as surely as the sinister forces lurking in the shadows. The camera often pans the surrounding before zeroing in on the object of its attention, simulating the act of looking. Roberts consciously makes the audience complicit in the ritualised mayhem wrought by his anonymous antagonists. If these villains get their thrill out of doing these horrific things, the audience gets its thrill out of watching.

Things really heat up.

There is an interesting conflict within the movie itself. The manner in which the film is produced seems designed to suggest some long-lost direct-to-video horror film from the eighties, an idea reinforced by the general aesthetic of the movie; the font, the soundtrack, the way in which the camera moves. However, Prey at Night is pointedly set in the present day; characters listen to music on their phones, use modern slang, dress in modern clothes. It feels like Prey at Night was originally designed as a horror movie period piece like The Conjuring, only to be dragged into the present quite late in the game.

More than that, Prey At Night never finds a particularly interesting angle on this premise. It lacks the sort of “Funny Games Lite” aesthetic that made the original Strangers so compelling. The film’s kills are fairly routine and formulaic. Its beats are predictable. It is quite easy to figure out what is going to happen in which order. Certain plot contrivances (such as how the movie gets around the obvious solution of “use your mobile phone!” that adds to the uncanny quality of the present-day setting) feel like the hand of the author intruding directly into the narrative in order to prolong the film’s sadism.

Opportunity knocks.

At the same time, the monsters in Prey at Night never feel quite as uncanny as they should, never as twisted or grotesque a perversion of the protagonist family as they really need to be. The monsters in these sorts of movie inevitably present a challenge to the social order of thing, transgressing certain boundaries or expectations. (The original Strangers hinted at ideas of class in the dynamic between the protagonists and the antagonists.) One of the bigger issues with Prey At Night is that it never quite settles on what makes these villains so horrifying.

Are they meant to be a perversion of the wholesome family dynamic embodied by the protagonists? There is some suggestion that they represent the erosion of social values embodied by the nuclear family at the core of the film, children who have grown up without parents and without guidance. However, this implication is undercut by the frame of reference implied by these characters. If these are meant to be a threatening next generation challenging the established order of things, why are they so rooted in nostalgia?

Fenced in.

These villains blare Kids in America on their car radio speakers, scrawl lyrics from Smells Like Teen Spirit in lipstick on the windows, wear vintage doll masks over their faces, and conduct themselves like members of the Manson Family. This is another example of how the film’s throwback aesthetic and modern setting seem at odds with one another. These killers might have seemed like the horrifying spectre of what is yet to come, had the film unfolded against the backdrop of the late eighties or early nineties. In the context of the film’s setting and release, its villains appear like serial killer hipsters.

Of course, there may just be a sense of expecting too much from Prey At Night. After all, it is emulating a genre largely defined by the flaws that Prey at Night incorporates. This rough quality is a feature, not a bug. When did popular culture decide that Friday, the 13th: Part II was a good (not just a fun) movie? Perhaps the biggest issue with Prey at Night recreates the grubby and nasty slasher movie as it was, not as we remember it.

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