The Strangers: Prey at Night – It’s Torture Porn, But Good Torture Porn

Stay away from dark corners!

The horror genre may be the greatest example of an acquired taste for film lovers. For those who love it, it may be hard to explain to casual viewers. Especially if the film in question is as depraved, violent, and as grotesque as The Strangers: Prey at Night. But despite all those adjectives, which are all deserved, what we have here is a film that shamelessly embraces the uglier sides of the genre, resulting in a helluva good time for anyone who appreciates a tense, well made slasher.

The original film, The Strangers (2008), was a box office hit. Coasting on it’s “Based on/Inspired by/Kind of sort of similar to” marketing campaign, before audiences caught on to the tactics, that film is solidly made with enough slow burning tension to creep into your brain and truly make you fear the middle of nowhere. However, the sequel, directed by Johannes Roberts, is much quicker to go for the jugular (sometimes literally.)

The film opens with the familiar “Inspired by True Events” blurb, as we see our titular villains target the home of an elderly couple. The film holds back from showing us what happens to our elderly couple, instead moving a bit into the future to meet our protagonists. There’s Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and her husband Mike (Martin Henderson), who are planning a vacation for themselves and their two kids, Luke (Lewis Pullman) and Kinsey (Bailee Madison.)

Kinsey is a troubled child, one who’s failing in school and is consistently in trouble. So much so, that her parents want to send her away to boarding school, which becomes a weapon of ridicule for her brother Luke. Madison plays Kinsey with a palpable amount of disillusionment. She’s jaded, unhappy, and very resentful. Many slasher films mistreat their main protagonists by casting them in broad archetypes that don’t allow us to connect with the characters. Kinsey is not the most complete character, as much of her backstory is left for us to fill in, but she’s the most sympathetic and emotionally relatable amidst a cast of mostly likeable leads. Who wouldn’t be pissed if you felt your parents were trying to get rid of you?

Ultimately, this is a broken family. And the bickering continues as they settle into the trailer park belonging to a couple of relatives. Except, mysteriously, the relatives are nowhere to be found, and our family is left to check themselves in to start their vacation. However, they are soon stalked by a couple of creepy characters. The Strangers have truly found a fractured family worth picking apart one by one. And it’ll be up to Kinsey and Luke to make amends for the family’s poor relationship if they all want to survive the night.

Christina Hendricks (left) and Bailee Madison attempt to call police on their attackers. When will horror characters ever learn?

Director Roberts has a knack for crafting visceral spectacles of gore. The camera work is equal parts chaotic and controlled, as the frenzied violence is captured with enough sophistication to keep you glued to the screen. The framing of certain scenes are deliberately crafted with wide views of the background of our heroes – leaving you to wonder where, and when, a viscous killer will dash into the foreground. There is a strong combination of darkness and vivid colors. There’s also a clarity in the action that nearly puts the viewers in the shoes of the characters experiencing this night, including a set piece near a swimming pool that may be the highlight of the film. The performances are mostly strong, if underwritten in some aspects. Also, if we’re counting Bad Times At The El Royale, it seems that Lewis Pullman’s filmography will revolve around whether his characters have the balls to pull the trigger of a gun.

The killers, just like in the original film, aren’t so much characters as they are avatars for the utterly pointless terror the film employs. There’s even a callback to the famous “Because you were home” explanation for the original killers’ crimes. Here, when asked “Why are you doing this?”, one of the killers replies “Why not?”

The lack of answers are what continue to make The Strangers a scary franchise. As many horror franchises try to explain the backstory of their original premise with increasingly boring and less scary attempts at mythology, The Strangers keeps it nice and simple. We’re not supposed to know. These killers, these freaks, represent the unexplained monstrosities in our own world. Their the reason we’re afraid to be left alone on a highway in the middle of nowhere at 2 a.m., or at some cabin far away from civilization. And no amount of screenwriting can top that level of tension.

The Strangers: Prey at Night can now be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

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