Opening with the pulsing synth lines of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” Johannes Roberts’s The Strangers: Prey at Night announces itself as a looser, bouncier, more self-consciously frivolous effort than its now decade-old predecessor. The three masked psychopaths from The Strangers are once again torturing and killing a group of random white people in a secluded locale, but Roberts reconfigures the elements of Bryan Bertino’s po-faced home-invasion thriller into a slick retro-style slasher: upping the body count, diversifying the methods of violence, and imbuing the whole thing with an aura of wry self-awareness. The result is a film with a fair bit of style but nothing much on its mind, content to deliver a few jumpy thrills before slinking away into the night like one of its murderous marauders.
Things get off to a slow start as Roberts spends an inordinate amount of time establishing bland characters who exist solely to be terrorized relentlessly for the rest of the film. Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is a sullen goth girl whose concerned parents, Cindy and Mike (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson), are shipping her off to boarding school. Kinsey’s moodiness and unpredictability have put a strain on her family, including her jock brother, Luke (Lewis Pullman), who alternates between antagonizing her and being tasked by their parents with calming her down. On the long drive to Kinsey’s new school, the family stops for the night at a mobile-home park owned by Kinsey’s aunt and uncle, and where the girl continues to act glum and pouty until Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pin-up Girl (Lea Enslin), and the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei) show up to inflict a night of violence and terror that has a way of putting her adolescent angst into perspective.
Featuring not one but two memorable set pieces scored to Jim Steinman-penned power ballads (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”), Prey at Night demonstrates a flair for epic, irony-tinged bloodshed. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, the Man in the Mask walks over to a crashed vehicle in which one of the family members is trapped, casually plops down in the passenger seat, sits still interminably, fiddles around with the radio dial until he finds an acceptable ’80s pop hit, and then, and only then, proceeds to get his brutality on. Drawing influence from the horror classics of the 1970s and ’80s, Roberts’s visual palette employs slow zooms and long, languorous tracking shots. The film’s menacing vehicular action specifically echoes John Carpenter’s Christine, while the Man in the Mask’s inscrutability, dogged determination, and ill-fitting suit unmistakably recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface.
In another (possibly unintentional) nod to the slashers of old, the characters here behave in exactly the sort of bumbling, nonsensical way that was called out by Scream over two decades ago: They amble slowly toward obvious danger, fail to kill a villain when they have a clear chance, and run down the middle of the street even though a car is chasing them. Is this self-conscious homage or simply bad writing? It’s a testament to Prey at Night’s slickly enjoyable lack of seriousness that the answer scarcely seems to matter.