If there’s one thing Johannes Roberts’ pre-screening introduction confirmed before The Strangers: Prey At Night, it’s that he *obsessively* respects the profoundness of John Carpenter’s genre contributions – to the point where the pic is a stalkerish mixtape of all the filmmaker’s favorite bits.
Subtle hints Hammer-to-the-head homages evoke Halloween’s “The Shape,” roll with The Fog and grind Christine’s gears in an atmospherically overt love-letter to Carpenter that Roberts signs in blood. Dash in a bit of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for flavor and you wonder what individuality this Strangers “offshoot” presents – until Roberts’ execution pushes such thoughts out of your mind. He may be riffing off recognizable horrors staples, but the director’s devotion to royalty is vicious and respectfully realized. Right down to a score you’d believe Carpenter recorded himself.
Screenwriter Ben Ketai (who rewrote Bryan Bertino’s existing script) introduces us to a suburban family with two children and one problem. Mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and father Mike (Martin Henderson) decide their troublemaker daughter – punk rebel Kinsey (Bailee Madison) – should be shipped to a boarding school some weekend’s travel away. With son Luke (Lewis Pullman) along for the ride, the clan makes a pit stop at Gatlin Lake mobile home for overnight rest and relaxation. It’s offseason, streets are prophetically empty – but, alas, three masked boogeymen lurk the grounds. “Pin-Up Girl,” “Dollface,” and “Man In The Mask” start hunting the family for sport because…frankly…it’s a night that ends in “y.”
As far as slashers, hunt-at-night thrillers and other familiar stalker-slaughter flicks compare, The Strangers: Prey At Night is outlined from the get-go. Ben Ketai’s Bertino re-write breaks through cottage walls to expand search radii across a decent-sized trailer park. Landmarks include a main office general store, communal pool, outdoor recreational area – and barbed wire enclosure fencing. Gaudy neon lights saturate the gloss of liner-blue water reflections while windows read “hello” written in red over and over – isolation with an artful dread – to heighten the “game” afoot. Challenge accepted, as read by grinning villains.
On the flip side, The Strangers: Prey At Night is caustically familiar. Character arcs especially. Kinsey is painted as a lost cause by her frequent smoking habits, torn Ramones graphic tee and resting bitch face. Cindy – the all-American mother – is mistreated and accused of abandonment by Kinsey, heavily-accented Mike gets to play the “good guy” parent, and Luke’s only defining characteristic relates to playing baseball – hilariously red-blooded ‘Merica like a foreign sitcom or something. Things pick up when the “Strangers” get all stab-happy, but until then, Roberts is responsible for some hokey family bonding you might find surfing cable syndication.
Here’s the biggest question The Strangers: Prey At Night poses – at what point does an “homage” become blatant recycling? As marshy conditions continuously obscure moonlit fields and mute killers linger at far distances, we are reminded – so very obviously – of The Fog (gasp) and Halloween. As Kinsey tries to incinerate the masked man driving a beaten-up junker, he continues to drive forward while still aflame a la Christine. Roberts’ transformation of trailer park constructs into slick horror cinematography is notable – a keen eye for blanketed darkness brightened by warming hues – but it’s more Carpenter than if Carpenter himself Carpentered his Carpenteriest (down to the goshdang credits font). Translation: does retreading history breathe new cinematic life, or just feel like a repurposing of someone else’s signature?
In response, Roberts deeply respects horror history and works with cinematographer Ryan Samul to ensure this ten-years-later “not a sequel” exists with reason. The Strangers is a bit more rustic, where The Strangers: Prey At Night will be best known for an aqua-blue swimmer’s struggle with blood clouding more and more liquid space – songs like Kim Wilde’s techno-sleaze “Kids In America” distorting violent maulings. Roberts’ cinematic proficiencies capture the horrors of small-town USA by utilizing Carpenter’s greatest atmospheres, copied or not. Crisp, chaotic and positioned to show these “Strangers” as sociopathic devils whose prize is the chase itself.
To flip once again, character development is lost beyond immediate instincts. Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson as devices to inspire their kin’s strength, Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman as frantic children who tell stories like “remember the time with the tree, and I hurt my leg, and Mom was so mad.” Developmental familiarity sinks like a rock given characters who are practically nameless playthings, squared against predators who kill without any sport. Sound familiar? Just like every other home invasion redux we’ve winced or shrugged our way through.
Please excuse my back-and-forth, but you must understand – Johannes Roberts’ latest is a well-executed conundrum. The Strangers: Prey At Night dives into the world of John Carpenter with slippery immersion tactics that are both cleanly executed and wholly borrowed. By respecting legend, Johannes Roberts’ latest identity is borrowed from a man he respects enough to recreate scene after scene. Competently, mind you – but is more needed? It’s such a strange quandary because, for me, this is a sinister “Most Dangerous Game” that gets away with “flattery” filmmaking (Tobe Hooper honored, too). For others, I expect Carpenter’s influence to be off-putting and reductive. Carpenter the master, Roberts a blushing – and accomplished – fanboy.
The Strangers: Prey At Night is a feature-length homage to Carpenter's best, and albeit familiar in structure, Johannes Roberts' execution strikes with brute ferocity.