Love it or hate it, nostalgia drives pop culture these days. Studios make loads of money off long-dead franchises featuring transforming cars and turtles who ninja. The love affair with the VHS era is so strong that Hollywood bombards us with stories set in the past (Super Dark Times, Everything Sucks) and modern homages featuring a throwback look and feel (Good Time). Director Johannes Roberts’ latest feature, The Strangers: Prey at Night, takes the latter approach. Roberts rips his style cues from classic 80’s movies and stitches them into a modern-day slasher flick. The result is an atmospheric thriller that wears its John Carpenter influences on its sleeve.
Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) are a couple of exhausted parents struggling to deal with their wayward teenage daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison). They decide that the best thing to do is to ship her off to boarding school, and with only a few days left before Kinsey leaves, Cindy and Mike feel that the family should spend their remaining time together. They round up the reluctant daughter and her brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman), pack their things, and head out to the country for a secluded weekend getaway.
Shortly after they arrive in the empty town, things take a dark turn. A trio of strangers in masks and hoods show up knocking on their windows and doors. These strangers are on a murder spree, and they like toying with their prey before going in for the kill. To complicate matters, they begin their twisted game of cat and mouse by smashing the family’s cell phones. With the town abandoned and having no way of calling for help, the family must use their wits to escape, or else become four more tallies on these psychos’ body count.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is an unapologetic 80’s homage, and it knows what buttons to push to scratch your nostalgic itch — at least on a technical level. The movie looks good and sounds great; the out-of-season vacation spot is a perfect location for a horror movie, a ghost town filled with tree-lined roads, tin-walled summer homes, and not much else. It’s the kind of off-the-map spot that seeps out of your memory while you’re still driving through.
Aided by some flashy cinematography, the town takes on a haunting presence after dark. Each scene is filled with shadows, and there always seems to be a creepy mist drifting through the background. Cinematographer Ryan Samul’s unsettling camerawork goes out of its way to keep you on edge as it incessantly creeps, spies, and lurks. It feels as though an attack can happen at any moment, so whenever the camera quickly zooms in tight on someone, it has a jarring effect.
However, the best thing The Strangers: Prey at Night has going for it is its sound design. First-off, there’s the John Carpenter-inspired score. Sure, these lo-fi 80’s electro soundtracks are overdone at this point, but when used in the right context they make a movie pop. Brooding synths and chilly piano keys are finely honed to send shivers straight up your spine. Sonically, this movie booms. Shotgun blasts burst through the speakers like thunderclaps, and car crashes sound like riots in your eardrums. Maybe the volume was jacked up to 10 in my screening, because even the sound of pounding on doors rattled my bones.
Still, although The Strangers: Prey at Night has all the right tools to create a solid horror/thriller, it ultimately misses the mark. It’s certainly atmospheric, but I didn’t find it suspenseful. Great thrillers build tension, then present a release point. I never felt as though this film was leading me towards any satisfying resolutions or rousing set pieces. I found it as suspenseful as watching a game of hide-and-seek; characters would scramble to new places to take cover, and their pursuers would keep popping up like the critters in a game of whack-a-mole.
It doesn’t help that the Strangers themselves have no personality. Michael Myers is terrifying because he comes across as an unknowable force of nature. These faceless killers feel more like pests, as if were the protagonists to stop running and fight back, they could take them out. The Strangers feel like such a ‘meh’ threat that I could envision them buying their murder tools at Restoration Hardware.
The film’s four protagonists are also problematic. To put it bluntly, this family sucks. None of them are interesting or memorable — I’m not convinced they even qualify as likable. Both the kids start off as obnoxious, and the film doesn’t bother to make them compelling. There are also only four members of this family, and that means we must watch a small group of people we don’t like as they’re hunted down. There’s no reason to root for them aside from, you know, not being a sociopath who likes to watch innocent people get slaughtered.
My biggest problem, however, is that I found the film joyless. Let me clarify: you don’t have to use Happy Death Day as a template for a joyful slasher flick; defiant protagonists, inventive kills, quippy banter, satisfying character arcs, and edge-of-your-seat set pieces all inject fun into a horror movie. Instead, The Strangers: Prey at Night is an unimaginative collection of chase scenes.
The movies that this picture emulates were often low-budget, misogynistic, and poorly acted, and yet they still had their charms. Charm is exactly what The Strangers: Prey at Night is lacking. This is a film that will serve general audiences in a pinch, but offend anyone who calls themselves a horror aficionado. The Strangers: Prey at Night is barely serviceable VHS-era pastiche that recaptures the style of the classics, but lacks their soul.