There’s a scene in Bryan Bertino’s film “The Strangers” that handily encapsulates the film’s nervy brand of terror, one so good and simple that it served as the film’s poster image when the 2008 feature first hit theaters: it’s Liv Tyler, standing alone in her kitchen, looking out into what seems to be — what should be — an empty house. Behind her, a masked figure lurks, half-hidden in shadows and entirely unknown to Tyler’s character. When the scene unspools in the film, it’s a jolt of pure terror, with the masked man sliding into frame, then slowly moving out of it. Tyler’s Kristen McKay is none the wiser, and that the scene doesn’t lead to an instant slash of bloody violence is mostly incidental.
There will be violence later, plenty of it, but it’s the dread of it all, the senselessness of the criminals, the ignorance of their prey, that makes it so emblematic of the entire world Bertino crafted in the low-budget hit.
A sequel to the film was originally announced just months after Bertino’s feature hit theaters, but it’s taken nearly a decade for “The Strangers: Prey at Night” to arrive, a sort-of sequel that gleefully exists in the same universe as “The Strangers,” without being beholden to demands that it pick up precisely where the first film chillingly left off. Helmed by “47 Meters Down” director Johannes Roberts, “Prey at Night” plays out as both a clever followup to the first film and an homage to classic John Carpenter joints like “Christine” and “Halloween.”
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Better still: the mash-up works, and “Prey at Night” is a strong successor to the first film (it doesn’t hurt that Bertino co-wrote this one alongside Ben Ketai) that also stands on its own merits. Juiced up with clever kills, a throwback soundtrack, and a unique new setting, Roberts’ film also makes the case that horror franchises aren’t dead yet, they just need some new blood.
“Prey at Night” continues the first film’s tradition of casting secluded rural enclaves as key locations, moving the action from the first film’s oddly empty middle class neighborhood to a cleared-out trailer park that caters to families on holiday at the local lake. At the tail end of the summer, the park is empty, and filled with spaces just asking for a murderous, mask-wearing trio to turn them into meat markets.
The central couple of “The Strangers” has now been replaced with a family in crisis — Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson as beleaguered parents Cindy and Mike, Lewis Pullman as golden boy son Luke, and Bailee Madison as troublemaking daughter Kinsey — who arrive at the park after an exposition-heavy introduction that soon gives way to a lean, mean narrative. Installed in a private trailer, an apparent neighbor comes knocking, hidden in shadow and asking for a resident who doesn’t exist. It’s the first big callback to Bertino’s original film, and it delivers the same queasy dread it did in 2008.
It will get worse.
Soon, the family is at the mercy of a trio of mask-wearing weirdos who delight in separating them — literally and figuratively — and sending them spinning around the increasingly foreboding atmosphere that is a darkened trailer park in the middle of nowhere. Their cell phones are smashed, other bodies are discovered, and at least one of those mask-wearing weirdos playfully apes that same scene that set the stage in the first film (this one: outside, and all the better for it).
Picking its leads off one by one, “Prey at Night” cranks up both the stakes for its terrified family and the bloodshed, capitalizing on smart kills (a pool-set duel is the best sequence in the franchise yet), a delightfully ’80s-inflected soundtrack, and murderous baddies who never need to do anything other than menace. Asked why they’re so giddy about going after a seemingly normal family, one of the villains sums up their entire ethos in two chilling words: “Why not?”
“Prey at Night” offers up at least one major new twist: the possibility of actual revenge at the hands of its most vulnerable victims. It’s there that Roberts most notably leans into his own sensibilities, and while some of the results are a bit silly — baddies who just won’t die, jump scares, wacky coincidences — they also leave his own stamp on the feature, allowing “Prey at Night” to be the rare sequel that occupies its own space while also honoring its predecessor. The only thing scarier than “Prey at Night” is the possibility that we might have to wait another decade for more of its very special mask-faced chills.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” opens on Friday, March 9.