By Tanner Tait
Diehard fans of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film “The Strangers” already know they have to take critic’s scores with a grain of salt, flashing back to undeserved low ratings across the board: 45 percent from Rotten Tomatoes, 47 out of 100 from Metacritic and a B- from CinemaScore. A decade later, working with Bertino’s vision, director Johannes Roberts revamped “The Strangers” to create a familiar terror through an entirely new scope in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” released nationwide March 9.
Learning from the slow, quiet pacing of the original movie, Roberts adopted a modernized look at the slasher genre without forgoing the sinister charm that “The Strangers” offered. A delicate backstory laid out all necessary conflicts, allowing the audience to connect with the hopeless survivors – a troubled family, nonetheless – before watching them get picked off one by one.
The original movie began in media res, forcing the backstory to slowly unfold during all of the action scenes, which, unfortunately, created an imbalance: it urged a story to unravel while simultaneously bombarding the audience with murder scenes and chaos. In the sequel, it communicates clearly why this family must go to the creepy, abandoned trailer park, why the daughter has an obvious disconnect from everyone else; it set the scene effectively while imbuing feelings of sorrow and pity for the characters, as opposed to an unfortunate lack of interest as produced in the first movie.
A huge change is the sense of space in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” giving the survivors a seemingly endless trailer park in which they can run around and hide, compared to the cramped motel and barn where majority of the original movie took place. The flexibility was increased even more when the son in the family, Luke – played by Lewis Pullman – was able to fight back against the murderers, previously thought to be unstoppable and even invincible. At one point, one of the three aggressors even loses his calm, creepy demeanor and starts swinging wildly at Luke, breaking the illusion that these three are monsters and showing a twisted, human side.
Roberts kept many tropes from the previous movie: silent shots of the survivors with the murderers quietly staring in the background; the usage of music and toys to emphasize how the predators were playing with their prey; the same, clean gore of slicing and stabbing the victims, rather than brutalizing them.
Perhaps the major addition to the sequel, other than an upped ante of jump scares, tension building and a sense of torture, is the presence of vaporwave culture. The first movie felt very “original slasher,” with creepy classic music and a muted/desaturated background to complement the stalking of the strangers. As for the sequel, every murder scene had bright colors with uncomfortable silences broken only by pleas for help, groans of pain and a soundtrack heavily centered around the 80s. Neon lights illuminated the community pool as Luke was ruthlessly stabbed, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” playing in the foreground. We watched Man in the Mask stare at his victim choking on the blood in his throat, colorful lights playing in the car as he slowly turned the radio up, Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia,” blasting. Trading classic slasher ambient music for a much more pronounced, vaporwave soundtrack allowed Roberts the freedom to mess with the linearity of the genre – simultaneously shouting back to 80s slashers and moving forward into an experimental mesh of tropes.
The nostalgic familiarity allowed fans to connect to the previous movie, while also being stunned by the horror overhauls. From the perspective of a huge fan of Bertino’s 2008 film, I was greatly pleased with the different interpretation that Roberts ran with in creating his own vision. In my experience as a horror fanatic, it’s tough to make a sequel that will live up to the expectations of the franchise starter – which is exactly why Roberts went a new route, creating his own slasher while paying attention to all the details that made “The Strangers” stand out originally as its own form of horror.