Following up your unfairly maligned horror film ten years after the fact might seem like a strange idea, but The Strangers: Prey at Night dispels its audience's confusion almost immediately by diverging from its 2008 predecessor's own approach to the home-invasion thriller. To be sure, some things remain: The sound design is still minimalistic but immersive, here refusing to allow the audience to be guided to the scares by a sting on the soundtrack or by the kind of cheap misdirection to be found in lesser efforts. The songs of the soundtrack are still key background to its most intense sequences, its psychotic killers enjoying some classic rock and 1980s pop songs while carrying out their heinous acts.
The location, too, is still more than a promise made. The Strangers was set primarily in and around a secluded residence, and its sequel has expanded the scope to a handful of homes in a trailer park. This means that we get sequences of tension building and releasing on a loop because of the uncertainty of these surroundings. The trailer park is a mostly alien place to the family at the center of this movie, who have arrived for one final weekend before the elder son goes off to college and the younger daughter is placed in a boarding school. The fact that the surrounding homes are vacant is both ominous, in the discomfiting quietude, and expected, as it is nearing Labor Day.
The family in question have gone through a tension of their own recently. Daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) had a year of rebellion, and mom Cindy's (Christina Hendricks) solution was the boarding school placement. Dad Mike (Martin Henderson) clearly went along with the plan with some reluctance, and son Luke (Lewis Pullman) just wanted a final weekend of impromptu baseball games with friends. They have arrived at the trailer park, directed to a cabin by a note that informs them of the absence of their intended hosts.
Inevitably, the terror starts quickly and decisively: a young woman, calling on the residents of the home at almost precisely the middle of the night and questioning the presence of someone who likely doesn't exist. Three killers (played in intimidating and convincing physical performances by Damian Maffei, Emma Bellomy, and Lea Enslin), two wearing playful but off-kilter masks and the third a hood painted with an ironic smile, follow, closing off every avenue of escape in the process. In the first film, this already barebones concept was stripped down to its essentials, offering a crucial contradiction in its bleak ending (which stopped all hinting of its psychotic trio's intentions after half an hour of teasing them).
The sequel poses a different set of rules. We know how this trio works, so the appeal becomes seeing them operate in a more expansive location. It's quite an effective exercise, too, offering set pieces that range from pretty nifty (an attempted escape from a bathroom with only one, very inconvenient path of escape) to genuinely virtuoso (a showdown at a pool, cleverly scored to Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," in which director Johannes Roberts and cinematographer Ryan Samul weave the camera elegantly in and out of the water). It also helps that screenwriters Bryan Bertino (returning from the first film, which he directed) and Ben Ketai haven't given us human chattel of the constantly foolish kind.
Indeed, there is a body count (It's never a spoiler without providing context, but particularly in the wider context of an invasion thriller, to reveal that people die), but it doesn't occur through the foolishness of those theoretical victims. Roberts, who utilizes a lot of zooms that travel from wide-angle to close-up in order to follow Hitchcock's advice, also provides actors who know not to overplay this material (Pullman and especially Madison get better as they get more terrified, which is certainly refreshing in this genre). The Strangers: Prey at Night doesn't match the terror of its predecessor, but it is a satisfying sequel.
Bailee Madison (Kinsey), Lewis Pullman (Luke), Martin Henderson (Mike), Christina Hendricks (Cindy), Damian Maffei (Masked Man), Emma Bellomy (Dollface Girl), Lea Enslin (Pin-Up Girl).
Directed by Johannes Roberts and written by Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai.
Rated R (horror violence/terror throughout, language).
Released on March 9, 2018.