Tuesday, March 13, 2018


The Strangers, writer-director Bryan Bertino’s 2008 debut, remains one of the most enjoyable “Look Behind You!” horror movies in recent memory. It used every inch of the widescreen and every degree of the lens’ focus to impeccable effect. The most memorable image drew a protagonist into the far right corner of the foreground while, unbeknownst to her, a woman in a doll mask stood eerily still in the far left corner of the background. Seeing it with a packed house made for fun shivery tension as the realization that the danger was inside the house and right behind her bubbled up in pockets and then all at once up and down the rows. A short, nasty work that found a couple terrorized by three masked home invaders, the movie made a brute no-nonsense contribution to the slasher subgenre, shirking the self-conscious and playing up the pain. Here was a movie that made the killers monstrous and unknowable, in it for the lark. The victims were neither brilliant nor dumb, just average folks caught off-guard by the terrible situation. Who wouldn’t be?

Now the belated sort-of-sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, picks up the same thematic idea and applies it to a slightly bigger setting – this time a family of four trapped with three masked creeps (the same ones?) in an off-season vacation rental park – and filmed with more of a slick throwback approach. There’s a little synth here, some neon there. It’s all a tad more self-conscious about its place in the genre, but no less effective for it. Bertino co-writes with Ben Ketai for director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down), who treats the premise as an exercise in style and restraint, using slow zooms and patient medium shots in the early going as we learn about the family’s troubles and come to care about their slow-boil melodrama. Eventually, their problems don’t amount to much as they struggle to survive an inexplicable attack by the homicidal strangers of the title. 

Expert suspense sequences are staged and cut with precision, each more exquisitely directed than the last, culminating in a string of striking moments – a shimmering pool attack climaxing with a perfectly executed zoom that almost had me leaping out of my seat; a slow turn of a burning pick-up truck that had me bouncing my heels. The trick is that it’s not just showily well-calibrated to play old genre beats – though it does – but that it makes for a movie that’s as finely tuned to get the effects. All involved, from the cast (including recognizable talents like Christina Hendricks, Bailee Madison, Martin Henderson, and Bill Pullman’s son Lewis) to the filmmakers behind the camera (especially cinematographer Ryan Samul, who brings some of his Jim Mickle collaborations’ glossy tension), invest it with a convincing sense of surprised pain that helps the stylish touches crackle off the screen with just enough verve.

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