Though it’s as slim and poorly balanced as a cheap knife, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a stylish 1980s throwback that packs plenty of terror into its short running time. This isn’t a horror movie that will take up residence in your nightmares for weeks, but the sequel to the solid 2008 original “The Strangers” is nonetheless just as effective in the short term as its well-made counterparts.
Director Johannes Roberts begins the film with a synth-infused version of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” and retro title styling, letting the audience know what decade of horror we’re in for, even if the characters are blissfully unaware of what’s coming.
Mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and dad Mike (Martin Henderson) pack up a pouting Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) on a trip to take Kinsey to boarding school. She’s a teenage rebel, as her Ramones t-shirt and cigarette habit quickly tell us.
The family plans an overnight stop with relatives who spend the off-season at a trailer park of summer homes. “Everybody leaves after Labor Day,” Cindy explains. So when violence enters the park in the form of masked killers, there’s no one to hear the family’s screams as they move between empty homes, trying desperately to stay alive.
The three original villains — Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and Man in the Mask — all return, or at least their costumes do. And like its predecessor, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” works because of the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of these villains with their covered, immovable faces, near-silence and seemingly unknowable motives for murder. Also, the lack of supernatural influence and their everyday attire make them seem as if they could be real — versus the vampires, demons and ghosts that inhabit other films.
Roberts’ sequel amps up the unease by beginning with the tagline, “Based on true events.” But it’s unclear what real-life story it’s based on, other than its inspiration by “The Strangers,” which also made the same claim. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” not only follows in the original film’s footsteps, but those tread by France’s “Them” and a variety of other home-invasion films. There’s little that feels fresh here, with genre tropes and tricks appearing throughout, though fans may be too terrified to care.
Horror movie characters aren’t generally known for their brains, but these ones make enough bad choices that audiences won’t be able to help yelling at the screen (at least ours couldn’t). It’s a frustrating experience at times, but the script from Ben Ketai and “The Strangers” filmmaker Bryan Bertino eventually allows the family to take some satisfying actions in the second half of the film.
Things get more stylish as the film approaches its climax, taking an hour to make good on the visual promise made in its opening moments. Cinematographer Ryan Samul previously worked on Jim Mickle’s mood-infused genre films like “Cold in July” and “Stake Land,” and his lensing elevates this movie, especially in its final act. Roberts also brings in more ’80s music late in the game to hammer in his influences, including the best use of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” this side of “Old School.”
When “The Strangers: Prey at Night” finally reveals the reasoning behind Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and Man in the Mask’s crime rampage, it lacks the chill of the original’s unsettlingly simple, “Because you were home.” It’s also less grim than its predecessor, which may please more viewers while they’re watching, but ultimately leaves less of an impression than it might if it took a bleaker route to the end.
‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’
Rating: R, for horror violence and terror throughout, and for language
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: In general release