This review is spoiler-free.
Last week, I revisited one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade, The Strangers (2008). Framing my reexamination was the upcoming release of the first and also ten-year anniversary sequel, The Strangers: Prey At Night.
As promised, I boldly braved the bloodthirsty, hormonal militia of teen and pseudo-adult savages guaranteed to occupy every corner of the theater and bought myself a ticket on opening night. And you know what? It was fucking great. (The film, not the audience—they sucked.)
Prey officially moved into the top spot of my Favorite Spooks of 2018 list, and I have a feeling it’s going to take something really special to knock it out. That said, emphasis is on favorite here because that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. Top spot for cinematography still goes to The Ritual, and most masterful likely belongs to Veronica. But The Strangers: Prey At Night is truly the most delightfully surprising success story of the year so far.
Because I loved it so much and really want you all to buy tickets of your own (may I suggest at off-peak teen and pseudo-adult savage hours), I’m going to keep this one squeaky clean and spoiler free.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about Prey going in. Of course you’ve already read about those, but in short, I felt excitement tempered by unavoidable skepticism. Bryan Bertino, screenwriter and director of the first film, also penned this script (with Ben Ketai), but he wasn’t directing and the rest of the creative team was also different. I really felt like the film could go either way.
Somehow, though, Prey managed to absolutely nail it. I am truly shocked by how effective it managed to be. It was the most perfect and seemingly effortless love letter to the original, while also escalating and evolving the story with such well-paced execution. I want to say that this is a very different film from 2008’s The Strangers, and it is, but it’s also a true and fair sequel in the same hand. Against almost all odds, it just seems to complement the original despite its difference—and I do mean difference.
If The Stranger’s success was in oscillation between measured subtlety and well-timed exclamation, Prey turned everything up to eleven. Just as real-life serial killers tend to escalate the more and more they murder, we saw a trio of antagonists who had done this before and were clearly living up to the promise that they had made to us ten years ago to continue their nihilistic killing spree.
The story was drastically ramped up, with more characters, more dialogue, more murdering, and more direct contact with the masked menaces. The world of the film was also more expansive this time around, trading up from a single summer home to a larger trailer park. The naturally segmented setting of the park was used very effectively in the film, with each spot making for its own little scenescape in which to house its specific scare. Without giving anything away, the diversity of the settings allowed the film to deliver a lot of dynamic horror in unique ways.
There were lots of fun calling cards and subtle nods to the original in both the writing (which is to be expected to an extent, given that Bertino was behind both scripts) and also in the cinematography, which was more of a surprise.
The tight close up shots and shaky-but-not-too-shaky handheld tropes were definitely present, but one of the things cinematographer Ryan Samul executed especially well in Prey was the long, sweeping tracking shot. It was used a lot in this film, but it was always eye-catching in the right kind of way.
The spooks were great, too, and I can’t stop thinking about how this film managed to be at once more intense than the original and yet more whimsical. The diegetic soundtrack trope that centered the first film returned to Prey, but the vintage turntable of the original was shelved in favor of car stereos and a pool area sound system. (The pool scene I’m referencing is teased in Prey’s trailer, and if you’ve seen it, just know that it actually is as rad as it looks.)
The acting was also solid all around. I especially liked the brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman), and I think that you’re supposed to. Martin Henderson (who played Mike the dad) was smokin’, as to be expected, that cutie pie. Kinsey (Bailee Madison) was exactly the insipid, self-centered teen child person that she was supposed to be, and mama Cindy (Christina Hendricks) was good, too.
Overall, I hope that you’ll go out and buy a ticket to The Strangers: Prey At Night because I think it’s a triumph that deserves your hard-earned money and an hour and a half of your time. Even with four million less dollars in the budget than The Strangers had, Prey managed to be a very fun, very effective, and very entertaining evolution of the original story, without ever losing the special feeling of a classic.