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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Strangers: Prey at Night  (2018)
3½ Stars
Directed by Johannes Roberts.
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Emma Bellomy, Damian Maffei, Lea Enslin.
2018 – 85 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and terror throughout, and for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, March 6, 2018.
Writer-director Bryan Bertino's "The Strangers" was a sensational—and sensationally terrifying—thriller when it was released in 2008, and a decade later it hasn't lost a shred of its power. Alongside 2007's "Them" and 2008's "Funny Games," the film was one of a trio released less than a year apart which arguably jumpstarted the home-invasion subgenre. Indeed, there is something innately identifiable and distressing about the presumed security of one's own sacred space being shattered. That the three masked psychopaths in "The Strangers" had no motive—their only explanation for targeting the characters played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman: "Because you were home"—made it all the more chillingly plausible. Just like Bertino before him, every beat of director Johannes Roberts' (2017's "47 Meters Down") just-as-potent sequel, "The Strangers: Prey at Night," is saturated in his adoration and reverence for horror's legacy. Paying welcome tribute to certain iconic beats from the original while bravely forging its own path, the picture works as both a tremendously well-oiled exercise in jittery apprehension and a damn fine companion piece to what has come before.

Parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) are worried enough about the increasingly rebellious behavior of 15-year-old daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to make what they see as a tough but necessary decision. En route to a boarding school they hope will set her on a better path, the family of four—Kinsey's more-together 17-year-old brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) is also in tow—stop for the night at Gatlin Lake Getaway, a near-deserted trailer-park resort where their aunt and uncle own a home. Before they've had time to settle in for the evening, a knock on the door and a single question from the shadowy woman standing before them—"Is Tamara home?"—will act as harbinger for what quickly turns into a nightmarish fight for survival.

"The Strangers: Prey at Night" is beautifully moody and evocatively sinister, a crackerjack domestic-drama-turned-slasherama not easy to shake. An expert study in unnerving catharsis, the film astutely turns an involving familial slice-of-life into a harrowing but also exhilarating gift of fright. As vicious as its murderers are, though, the picture itself is anything but mean-spirited. Tech credits are top-notch, from cinematographer Ryan Samul's (2015's "Dark Was the Night") indelible imagery of lonesome, fog-steeped wide-open spaces to composer Adrian Johnston's (2016's "I Am Not a Serial Killer") exquisite '80s-style, John-Carpenter-inspired synth score. A handful of shrewdly used source cues (among them, Kim Wilde's "Kids in America," Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All," and Mental as Anything's "Live It Up") exhibit a wicked knack for incorporating sweeping '80s pop tunes into the fabric of its alarming goings-on.

The screenplay by Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai (2016's "The Forest") is compact but unsparing, introducing its four central characters and their strained circumstances with an observant, sympathetic eye and an awareness that viewers already know something these protagonists do not: that their time together is likely numbered, and all of their squabbles will mean nothing once their lives are on the line. An attention-grabbing opening scene suggests just as much, culminating in an eerily quiet, pre-titles humdinger. As the core narrative develops—and once the attacks from the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), Dollface (Emma Bellomy), and Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin) begin, the dread and tension rarely let up—so, too, does the emotional complexity of its characters. Faced with the unimaginable, they cling to what matters most: the human connections they share, making sure even in what could be their last moments with each other that their loved ones know how much they mean to them. What makes both "The Strangers" and "The Strangers: Prey at Night" so unforgettable isn't their violence or body count, but the authentically uncompromising depictions of innocent people stricken by fate's most vicious hand.

The mobile-home park, as lensed, is atmospheric to the nth degree, a desolate neighborhood of unoccupied summer homes posing as the homicidal trinity's malevolent playground. It's also surprisingly unique as far as horror-movie locales go, no doubt inspiring a number of its most stirring set-pieces. An above-ground storm drain tunnel. A garish pool area populated with neon palm trees. A narrow bridge acting as inviting entrance and traumatic exit to the horrors within. Director Johannes Roberts milks his settings and situations with a stylish, classy, up-tempo verve which gives the film its own identity without merely mimicking its predecessor. He knows how to build suspense and deliver scares without losing sight of the people in front of the camera. He understands the value of silence, or holding on a shot, over rapid-fire cutting. His love of the genre is always in evidence, subtle but knowing odes to everything from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Scream" to "The Fog" and "Christine" an organic addition to the story in which he is so thrillingly telling.

Truly good actors in horror films—the kind who are able to make every moment as real as possible—rarely receive the credit they so richly deserve. It cannot be easy to sustain a heightened level of emotional commitment where one must cry, scream, hyperventilate, and generally act panic-stricken for most of the running time. The performers here are put through their paces, and each one is tremendous. Christina Hendricks (2016's "The Neon Demon") and Martin Henderson (2015's "Everest") are thoroughly believable as parents Cindy and Mike, at their wits' end with turbulent daughter Kinsey and willing to do whatever is needed to save her from the path she's heading down. Long before the night is up, they'll be fiercely trying to save both their kids in a radically different way. Lewis Pullman (2017's "Battle of the Sexes") is excellent as big brother Luke, his relationship with Kinsey contentious but based in a place of care, concern and shared history. He, too, wants his sister to break out of the willful phase she's in, and he's not afraid to be blisteringly honest if it means getting through to her in some small way. As his family's situation grows ever more dire, Luke gathers all the courage he has inside himself to try to take charge and protect Kinsey. Pullman sells this arc and the bond he shares with his sibling.

As first-rate as the ensemble is, it is Bailee Madison (2012's "Parental Guidance") who proves to be the star. An acclaimed child actor who has grown up onscreen, Madison's outstanding work feels like a graduation of sorts into more adult parts. Her Kinsey tries to put up a tough front even as it's clear how deeply she feels about things. Over the course of a single night where three strangers wielding knives and axes tear apart the existence she's known, Kinsey experiences a shell-shocked transformation into someone who realizes the mistakes she's made and how fortunate she has been to have the family she was given. When faced with taking control of her own destiny, she fights as hard as she can. Not enough superlatives can be said about what Madison does with this three-dimensional role; hers is a heroine of vulnerability and take-charge strength, of desperation and pangs of regret, of perceptive layers which gradually reveal themselves the longer the viewer follows her life-or-death struggle.

Like "The Strangers" before it, "The Strangers: Prey at Night" does what the best horror movies should: it leaves one rattled and on edge, but also euphoric, the piercing darkness of the film's content counterpoint to the thrill of experiencing a filmmaker achieving levels of greatness within a genre requiring a keen understanding and appreciation for its genus. Save for the killers' modus operandi, this exemplary sequel opts not to repeat the same beats, but averts expectations in crafty, gratifying ways. It also has the kind of taut pacing to kill for, the deliberate early precision with which it sets up its characters leading into a propulsive second act of ceaseless hair-raising ingenuity. Ending on a truthful note of tenebrous ambiguity where all presumptions of safety have been effectively obliterated, "The Strangers: Prey at Night" is a haunting, portentous and altogether electrifying dip into a maelstrom of raw-nerve terror and poignant humanity.
© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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