Movies like “The Strangers: Prey at Night” unsettle me more than stories featuring Dracula, Frankenstein or anything other thing that goes bump in the night because there’s nothing supernatural going on. At the same time there’s nothing natural about the horrors unleashed by the all-too-human monsters of this film.
The story gets underway when parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) load their teens Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and Luke (Lewis Pullman) into the car, on the way to a new life. Leaving the city behind, they’re off to Gatlin Lake, a small community that empties out after Labour Day. The change is an attempt to separate Kinsey from the bad influences surrounding her in the city. You know Kinsey is a rebellious teen because she wears an off the shoulder Ramones T-shirt and smokes cigarettes.
Arriving at their new home, a deserted trailer park, the kids are immediately bored as the parents try and make the best of an uncomfortable situation. Things get lively when three masked psycho killers—Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei) and Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin)—emerge from the woods with knives, axes and bad intentions. From that point on this becomes a movie where people make terrible decisions and frequently scream, “Leave us alone!”
The spooky opening, complete with anxiety inducing music, a bit of murder and a title card claiming the tale you are about to see is “based on true events,” sets up the film’s uneasy atmosphere. However, the movie never gets to the point where it is actually scary. Instead, it is a queasy-making experience that stems from the idea of people doing awful things for no reason. It’s nihilism. Bad things just happen and that’s the creepy part. “Why are you doing this?” Kinsey shrieks. “Why not?” mumbles Dollface.
The jump scares are secondary to the notion of the ruthless faceless murderers. The family is generic, just victims waiting to be taken. The villains are the stars, even though their faces are covered and they barely speak. They’re not thrill killers. They don’t seem to take much pleasure in their work despite their penchant for listening to syrupy pop music and leaving a bloody happy face symbol at the scene of their crimes. They are primal evil, nothing more.
“The Strangers: Prey at Night” is one note. Summed up in one line it’s, “Unstoppable killers do dreadful things to wide-eyed victims.” Like the first film in this franchise—2008’s “The Strangers”—it’s tight, only 85 minutes long, and values suspense over gore but goes too heavy on the sadism.