2008’s The Strangers was a surprisingly good horror movie, but it isn’t typically held in the same high regard as modern genre classics like It Follows, The Conjuring, or The Babadook. The one ace the film did have up its sleeve, though, was its brilliant use of the home invasion scenario. There’s just something fundamentally terrifying about the idea of a group of people corrupting the one place you are supposed to feel safest.
It’s only natural, then, that The Strangers: Prey at Night completely abandons the idea of home invasion in favor of a fairly generic slasher scenario.
Prey at Night tells the story of a family of four who leave their suburban home to stay overnight at a trailer park vacation spot while they wait to enroll their rebellious daughter in boarding school. While there, they are harassed by three masked strangers who have targeted them – and other residents of the area – for no immediately apparent reason.
If that comes across as a somewhat illogical and convoluted set-up, that’s only because that’s exactly what it is. Actually, that brief description is only the half of it. The film also informs us that the son would rather stay at home with his friends and play baseball, that the family might be going through some kind of financial issues, and that the parents are struggling to come to terms with their increasingly dysfunctional family and the fact that they are getting older.
Right off the bat, Prey at Night creates a pure “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” scenario. You know that this is all leading to a showdown with the masked strangers, which makes the exposition-heavy scenes of character building feel even more superfluous. These early sequences of family arguments, baseball team group hugs, and intimate conversations might have worked if any of the information they conveyed actually paid off later in the film, but that’s sadly not the case.
Speaking of unnecessary plot points, it’s not entirely clear why this movie takes place in a lakeside trailer park. We’re told that the family has relatives who run the trailer park, but the setting is never really utilized in any interesting way that justifies the decision. There’s really no “fish out of water” element to the plot as the park’s residents are nowhere to be found by the time the family gets there.
Instead, the only people they encounter are the titular trio of masked strangers. This set-up leads to a serious structural problem. In a slasher film – which seems to be what this movie is trying to be – you typically need a small army of disposable victims if you’re looking to get any entertainment value out of the mayhem. Otherwise, the film needs to ensure that every character death packs substantial emotional weight.
The small size of the cast prevents the former approach and the aforementioned poor set-up of the beginning of the movie greatly hinders the latter. What we’re left with, then, is a movie that includes the worst aspects of slasher movies – the illogical character actions, the plot holes, the obvious set-ups – but offers very little of the amusement that goes along with those tropes.
But is Prey at Night scary? Well, there are certainly a few scares to be found here and there, but most of them are of the jump scare variety. That’s not inherently a bad thing considering that jump scares can keep an audience honest, but the ones featured here aren’t especially effective and are surprisingly sparse. It’s enough to make you appreciate the funhouse style of a film like The Conjuring.
What’s truly surprising about Prey at Night’s shortcomings is that it’s pretty obvious that director Johannes Roberts truly loves the horror genre and appreciates the craft of horror’s greatest directors. Much like the original Strangers, Prey at Night occasionally utilizes ‘70s style filmmaking techniques. That means lovely lingering shots instead of rapid cuts, some brilliant uses of background movement to trigger the always lovely “they’re behind you!” audience reaction, and some overall surprisingly inventive camera tricks. Prey at Night‘s superb shots lend the movie a personality that instantly elevates it above the trash tier of modern horror cinema.
Still, those occasional moments of brilliance make it all the more frustrating that Prey at Night’s script is too generic and drawn-out to be salvaged. The film’s opening is too slow, its scares are too few, the characters are forgettable, and even the film’s brilliant retro shots will ultimately leave you thinking about much better horror movies that you could be watching instead.