Almost 10 full years ago in 2008, a small-budgeted horror film called The Strangers took the box office and audiences by surprise. I didn’t see it until a few years later while I was home alone, which is probably the best way to watch it, it was for me at least. I was yelling shit and screaming at my television, The Strangers had truly terrified me. It’s got a powerhouse performance from Liv Tyler, it’s menacingly yet minimalist in Bryan Bertino’s direction, and draws upon the terrifying premise that this couple didn’t really do anything to warrant a group of killers coming after them – they just happened to be there. The fact that the violence is initiated under a shrugging “why not?” pretense by the killers is just horrifying to me. What sticks with you is the fear that if it could happen to them, it could happen to you. It’s a modern classic in my book.
It’s sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, is a tale of two halves. The first half of the film is idiotic, poorly constructed and just overall boring. You feel like you’re watching a dollar store version of The Strangers. Then the last 30 minutes kick in and it’s an absolute riot, becoming a much different film than the original. Essentially, it doesn’t get good until it throws out everything that made the original so great and does a 180 with its tone to become a darkly hilarious delight. You know the expression “this shit ain’t half bad”? Well, this shit is half bad, but it’s also half really fun.
The main issue is that director Johannes Roberts waits so long to commit to the aesthetic that ultimately makes the film a riot. He spends the first hour slowly building up the tension, but without any of the hair-raising suspense that the original had. The jump scares don’t make you jump, you don’t care about these characters like you did in the original, the filmmaking isn’t as deceptively crafty as the original – he’s just not earning the right to terrify you and you just feel like you’re watching a cheap imitation of Bertino’s film.
When it finally embraces the black humor of soundtracking horrific acts to 80s pop songs that it hinted at in the trailers, it’s wonderful. The last act of the film is an exuberant love letter to slasher film series of the 70s and 80s, it’s tribute embodying everything from the editing to the performances, all while having a darkly hilarious edge. A depraved act of gruesome violence happens as Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blares over the speakers, and other instances where the film goes full-tilt gonzo to 80s boppers of soft-pop are just a delight. It’s like Adam Wingard at his best (The Guest, You’re Next) directed the final 20-30 minutes and just had fun with it.
The main thing that holds it back is that it almost feels like they didn’t realize they could take the film in this maniacally gleeful direction until they were editing it. Not a lot of it feels like it was originally planned to be there, so it’s constructed from parts that don’t support the whole. In a better world, we would have had 5 more Strangers films by now, they would have been the modern Friday the 13th series. But as far as waiting a decade for a sequel, this could have been worse. In the end at least, it’s a lot of fun, it just takes a long time to decide that that’s what it wants to do.