The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Cobble together a bunch of violent and gruesome scenarios from generic slasher pictures released in the past twenty years and sprinkle in popular ‘80s songs in order to create a sense of ironic throwback—this is the lazy and idiotic strategy of writers Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” a mean-spirited horror film devoid of any solid suspense, thrill, or payoff that lasts longer than five seconds. It is made, I think, for audiences with short attention spans, but even they are likely to be disappointed because there is a lack of craft, let alone originality, behind every buildup and delivery.
There comes a point when I began to question the filmmakers’ vision. As viewers who sign up to be entertained or to undergo catharsis, are we supposed to root for the family being tormented by masked figures eventually getting the upper hand and surviving their ordeal? Or are we supposed to relish the violence inflicted by the silent serial murderers, the victims’ tortured screaming, and cries of misery? On the surface, it is the former. But as one examines the execution, evidence points to the latter. I found the film sadistic without earning the right to be sadistic.
Most egregious is the scene that takes place in a minivan that has crashed into a trailer. The person on the driver’s seat is impaled by a sizable piece of wood in the stomach, rendering him unable to move. He is made aware that his death approaches when he sees the man in the mask standing a couple of feet to his left. The masked man walks over to the minivan, opens the door, and sits on the passenger seat. He basks in the victim’s misery. The camera admires the masked man’s power as the tortured protagonist screams and begs for his life. We watch the scene feeling helpless, deflated. It feels like an eternity.
Had this scenario been written differently, for example, the victim accepting his fate in silence, with pride, or the camera being placed from another angle thereby changing the sequence’s perspective and focus, the underlying message would have been different entirely. But it is a conscious choice, you see, to place the camera at a specific spot so that we, and the assailant, relish the horrific moment from the viewpoint of the villain instead of identifying with the victim. I felt sick about it and at that point I signed out. There is nothing entertaining about it; it just comes across as depraved for sake of being depraved.
Putting aside my personal objections, the family members being terrorized (Martin Henderson, Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman) are not written smart. During the first half, they do not possess any sort of survival instinct: they casually open doors to strangers who knock in the middle of the night, they (still) investigate bizarre noises even when they already know they are in a life or death situation, and they lack the common sense to use the vehicle’s horn at full power (there’s no neighbor around) instead of screaming out the window in order to get in contact with a family member. Do not get me started on their inability to use weapons.
And yet during the latter half, those who have survived thus far have suddenly developed such useful intuitions in other to outsmart or overpower their attackers. It’s preposterous. And laughable. It inspires the viewer to scream at the screen due to the unfolding idiocy.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night,” directed by Johannes Roberts, is an exercise in futility. Even the ending fails to deliver a powerful punch in order for the material to be memorable. A bad but memorable movie is better than a bad forgettable movie. It is so incompetent, it might as well have ended with a title card declaring “It’s all a dream!” Audiences are certain to walk away with furrowed brows.