The 2008 horror movie The Strangers, which found Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman being terrorized in a remote country house by three creepily masked young people, was harsh and unnerving and, thanks to affecting work by it stars, memorably sad. The low-budget flick made big money, but somehow — in what’s surely a behind-the-scenes Hollywood story crueler than anything Strangers writer-director Bryan Bertino could get onscreen — it’s taken ten years for a sequel to make it to theaters. The Strangers: Prey at Night, co-written by Bertino and Ben Ketai and directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) has a slow and rather grim first half, but then, in the home stretch, takes a welcome turn into the seriously silly.
Weary of dealing with their rebellious teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) — you know she’s badass ’cause she wears a Ramones shirt — Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) have decided to send her to boarding school, even if they have to go bankrupt to do it. Determined to force a little family unity before she goes, they take Kinsey and her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) to a trailer-park campground run by Cindy’s uncle. They arrive late. It’s off-season, deserted, foggy, the trailer is tiny, and mom and dad want to play cards. Big fun.
Knock. Knock. “Is Tamara here?” The young woman (Emma Bellomy) asking the question (as she did in the first film) has long stringy hair, but her face is hidden in the shadows. The parents send her away, but she’ll soon return, in a white “Dollface” mask, with two murderous pals in tow — “Pin-Up Girl” (Lea Enslin) and the guy in the smiley-face burlap mask (Damian Maffei). The trio will set about hunting the family down with kitchen knives and an ax, but not before taunting them with 1980s rock anthems and out-of-the-shadows jump scares. Being everywhere at once is their specialty.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal which family member dies first in The Strangers, but the actor is very good, so good in fact that the spirited crowd at my preview screening seemed to sink into instant mourning, much as I did when Tyler and Speedman got gutted in the original film ten years ago. For a few moments, that audience went oddly quiet and still, as if filled with a collective dread for all the grisly deaths yet to be endured.
That makes the third-act silliness of The Strangers: Prey at Night more striking. In a blink, the film goes from grim to goofy, and it’s hard not to feel as if the audience willed it so, on the spot. The good guys keep dying, to be sure, but the Strangers take some licks, too. Those sequences include a pickup vs. SUV battle and a long poolside fight that’s a triumph for Roberts, particularly in its use of bubbling water, gurgling blood, and a Bonnie Tyler classic whose title I won’t mention for fear that you, too, will get it stuck in your head for hours and hours on end. Therein lies the true horror…