The Strangers Prey at Night: Lamely Pedalling Old-School Scares in the 21st Century

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

Chalk it up to the ineffectual scares of The Strangers: Prey at Night, but I sat thinking how cell phones have dealt a crippling blow to horror movie plots. Again, this is while I should have gripping my seat arms tightly.

It’s been 10 years since the lean-and-scary The Strangers, the vaguely Manson Family–inspired tale of a young couple randomly terrorized by mostly mute masked maniacs became a hit (nearly $90 mil box office on a minuscule budget). Since then, smartphones have invaded everyone’s pocket and there isn’t a homicidal trailer-park on the continent that isn’t in 4G range.

"You check the attic and I'll take the basement!" Horror film recipe for disaster...

"You check the attic and I'll take the basement!" Horror film recipe for disaster...

Goodbye, age-old trope of cutting the phone line although guess what: it does happen in Prey at Night. But their presence does require an eye-roll of a plot-point that takes all four phones of a family under siege out of the equation.

As a creator of horror, there’s not much you can do logistically about that state of affairs. But stuff like being chased at a rural trailer park motel by an axe-wielding psycho and choosing to run into one of said trailers where you’re easily trapped rates a face-palm. 

Seriously, if you’re a perfectly healthy teen in a footrace with a husky guy carrying an axe so heavy it drags on the ground, you should be in the nearest town by the time he gets 100 feet.

Also, parents, if your obviously distraught kids tell you they’ve found a dead body, don’t go see if it’s true. Get the hell out of there and call police.

If you think he’s dead, keep killing him. I can pretty much guarantee he’s not dead yet.

And oh yeah, splitting up? Always a bad idea.

I could be describing a lot of movies these days. Indeed, The Strangers seemed to kick-start a bit of a genre of home-invasion horrors (two I can think of in Canada alone, Bruce McDonald’s Hellions and Audrey Cummings’ Berkshire County. One of them even had pretty much the same implausible ending as Prey at Night).

So, late to its own party, The Strangers: Prey at Night trades relative novelty for predictability. The premise has bad-girl Kinsey (Bailee Madison) being driven out to boarding school as a result of undisclosed major-league rule-breaking. The family carload includes mom and dad (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) and straight-arrow jock son Luke (Lewis Pullman).

Just to break up the trip, mom has arranged a stay at a comfy mobile home motel complex.

This is why you should use Trivago: they compare prices of similarly sketchy stayovers and include reviews that might mention knocks on the door by knife-and-axe wielding locals. That kind of thing definitely knocks a star off your rating.

In any case, the family is expected. The knock does come. A shy, breathy girl asks for some made-up name, and runs off. If you saw the original, you know what comes next — a siege by two women wearing carnival doll masks and carrying knives and the aforementioned hulking (and damn-near indestructible) guy with a sack on his head. 

It’s a cruel truth that wearing a mask makes you dispensable when it comes to casting a sequel, and none of the original maniacs are along for this one. Not that we’d know, but it would have been a nice gesture.

It’s a different director too, Johannes Roberts (see also the laughable Mandy Moore girls-trapped-underwater movie 47 Metres Down). Roberts ran out of jump-at-you scares dealing with sharks. You can imagine how much more limited his options are in a trailer park. 

The Strangers: Prey At Night. Directed by Johannes Roberts. Starring Bailee Madison, Christina Hendricks and Lewis Pullman. Opens wide March 9.