Masked psychopaths armed with knives and axes threaten a family in The Strangers: Prey at Night. Director Johannes Roberts helms this sequel to 2008’s The Strangers, imbuing it with the swagger of an ’80s John Carpenter film. It’s too bad that’s all the movie has to offer: It’s all style and no substance.
The masked killers who are bent on mayhem bring to mind pictures like The Purge and Happy Death Day, but those films benefited from (at least somewhat) interesting concepts. In this movie, there’s barely anything noteworthy or interesting about the concept or plot. The story follows a family of four. Mother Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and father Mike (Martin Henderson) are having trouble raising their daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison), so they’re sending her off to boarding school. Along with their older son Luke (Lewis James Pullman), the family go off to spend some time together at their uncle’s trailer park. It takes an entire half-hour to get through the setup before the movie even begins to try to thrill the audience. For the next hour, it does aim for some scares, but fails miserably.
That failure largely stems from the thin plot, which means there isn’t much for the actors to do. When it comes to the trio of psychotic killers, they are unable to convey the chaotic and unchained desire for malice that can be truly frightening and disturbing. You might wonder if maybe they were going for more of a Michael Myers-type villain, but none of the killers pull off the quiet intensity and imposing attitude needed to scare anyone. The physical acting is uninspired and unsupported by the cinematography. The only noteworthy acting comes from Bailee Madison—her uncontrollable sobs and blubbering gasps draw viewers into Kinsey’s utter fear and panic.
Aside from Madison’s performance, the only other strength this picture has is its sense of style in both the visuals and the audio. In an attempt to evoke the ’80s, the movie features a soundtrack full of pop hits from that era and a distinctive synth score. The result is an aural landscape that conjures up John Carpenter’s classic slasher film Halloween. The title card for the movie is also an attempt to evoke a retro feel, similar to what the Netflix series Stranger Things did with its title sequence. Prey at Night is shot in an interesting manner as well, with what feels like a strong sense of identity. For instance, the film’s use of wide angles that slowly zoom in for a close-up of the characters will subtly creep out viewers, as it suggests the menace of a predator’s intense focus.
But ultimately, Prey at Night is a slasher film that fails to traumatize viewers in the same way that Kinsey and Luke are. It should’ve focused its energy on executing the tried-and-true slasher-flick formula rather than developing the aesthetics. At one point in the movie, Kinsey asks one of the killers, “Why are you doing this?” If someone asked Johannes Roberts this question, it feels like he or she would’ve gotten the same lazy answer that the killer gives: “Why not?”