The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018)

MARCH 9, 2018


Here's a funny fact: on the weekend The Strangers opened in 2008, it was next to the original Iron Man on the box office chart. Since then, Iron Man's success paved the way for seventeen more films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with two more on the way this summer. These films have told an ongoing story, wrangling the stars from one movie to pop up in small roles in the others, with many of the actors breaking records for how many times they've played the same character as they keep coming back (and not just for the paychecks; most of them seem to genuinely love being part of something so unique). Incredulous as it may seem, the same amount of time has produced exactly one sequel to a masked killer horror movie. The Strangers: Prey At Night isn't the longest wait ever for a part 2 in Hollywood history (even in horror we had longer waits for the first sequels to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, etc.), but it's been a damn long ten years waiting for the next installment in what seemed like a can't-miss franchise. Surely, after all that time they at least can't be accused of rushing it, and came up with something equally memorable, right?

Alas, not quite - but at least they gave it a good try, and it will likely more or less do the trick for those who need their big screen slasher itch scratched. One thing they definitely got right was not continuing the story of Liv Tyler's character, because the randomness and lack of motive is a big part of what made the original work, and going after her again would dip too far into Halloween territory ("That girl... that Armageddon girl... that's Pin-Up's sister!"). This time our targets are a family of four led by Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks, who are - if I am following the clearly re-edited opening scenes correctly - driving their bratty teenaged daughter (Bailee Madison) to boarding school, with their older/less problematic son in tow. We never know what she did to deserve this punishment or even how far they're going to get there, but because they're strapped for cash they plan to stop not at a traditional hotel, but a family campground resort run by Hendricks' uncle. It's the off season so no one's there... except for the trio of familiar killers (Pin-Up, Dollface, and Man in the Mask) who have already dispatched the uncle and his wife in an opening scene. Not long after the heroes arrive, Dollface comes to the door and again inquires about Tamra, then a family argument separates some of them from the others, and then the cat and mouse stuff begins.

Now, if you strip The Strangers down to its bare essentials, it's about masked killers stalking innocent people - i.e. a movie you've seen 8,000 times, but it had a few things that put it a notch (a few notches, in my opinion) above its usual competition. First and foremost, the characters were stuck in a very awkward situation - Tyler had just turned down Scott Speedman's marriage proposal, spoiling a very romantic getaway in the cabin (there's a bit about rose petals in the tub that legit breaks my heart every time I watch the movie) and leaving their relationship's future in doubt. This is a rarely used concept for any genre, let alone horror, and as someone pointed out, the movie might be interesting to watch even without the killers showing up. There is a clear attempt to recreate that kind of dynamic here, with the daughter being pissed off at the parents who are trying to enjoy their last time together as a family, but it rings a bit false, and being a sequel, there's an unavoidable "let's get to the scary stuff" impatience which might have been softened had the situation been less cliche. How many daughters being angry at their parents have we seen in horror movies? Seven or eight thousand?

The scary stuff in the original was also unique. For starters, they didn't stray far from the house, which wasn't even particularly big, so they didn't even have a downstairs to hide in or anything like that. And that leads to another, even more important thing that made it such a winner: with a compact cast of two (one of whom, Speedman's character, left for a chunk of the runtime anyway) and not much room for chase sequences, the Strangers made themselves known to us a long time before they were known to Liv Tyler - the poster famously just used an image from the film itself, showing one of them just casually/creepily standing behind her in the house while she snuck a smoke break. There was also a strong sense of claustrophobia, as when they DID make their presence known and Liv would try to hide, it often felt like a no-win situation for her, only for the killers to resume toying with her by simply walking away rather than close in for the kill.

Unfortunately, this script (by the original's Bryan Bertino along with Ben Katai) goes in a different, less interesting direction by spreading the characters around the resort, which has multiple trailers, a playground, a construction site, the office, a pool... and also making its strangers more assertive in their actions. I won't spoil specifics, but the body count is not only higher this time but kicks in earlier than you might expect, and it doesn't quite work as a shock so much as a "Oh, well they just blew their wad" kind of thing. Granted, now we know that the Strangers are definitely OK with killing (don't forget, it's Speedman who commits the film's first murder, of his friend who came to help. Until the very end, the masked trio had plenty of opportunities to kill that they simply didn't take), but they could have dragged it out a bit longer and let the murdered person DO a bit more instead of being disposed almost instantly. Plus, with everyone constantly running around, fully aware of their predicament, it opens itself up to too many of the sort of dumb moments that the original largely avoided. No one would accuse those heroes of being geniuses, but most of their actions fell in the usual kind of "OK I'd probably do the same" line of thinking, whereas here we get people who run around on foot looking for someone instead of using their car that the Strangers didn't bother to disable.

It also lacked the claustrophobic element, and worse, rarely uses those other areas for anything memorable. For example, the film is almost over by the time the pool is utilized, when the person being chased is fully aware of what's happening. Why not have someone go into the pool earlier, before they knew anything was wrong, and let a Stranger toy with them/the audience a bit? Not to mention let them be vulnerable by choice, which is always a good way to get the pulses racing. The pool scene is one of the film's highlights, for sure, but it also feels like they could have done so much more with it. We also see signs for a mini golf course, and someone uses one of its putters at one point, but it's otherwise left unused/unseen, which seems like another missed opportunity. All of the elements are there to at least live up to the original's quota for great suspenseful setpieces and moments, but the order of the day here is fast chases and jump scares (one of which works amazing even though it's spoiled in the trailer), and so while it's not bad, it's also not likely to leave you rattled when you get home, either (that the characters aren't even in their home this time adds to that, of course).

And it's particularly frustrating to me, because I spent a lot of time in a similar campground/resort as a kid, and would get a bit unnerved whenever I was there during off-season (to prep our trailer for the season, or close it up once we stopped going) and saw how quiet/empty the usually bustling place was. So I know exactly how it feels to be weirded out in one of those places, and it still failed to generate even half as much raw uneasiness as the original did (which had me a bit spooked later that week when I caught a shadow through the light under my front door late one night). That said, director Johannes Roberts definitely knew one way to win me over: utilizing a pair of my beloved Jim Steinman songs. In a filmed intro they played before the movie, he talked about his filmmaking influences, which were mainly John Carpenter, and naturally that led to him talking about the soundtrack. After talking about the score for a bit, he said that he decided to use pop songs for the first time in his career, adding, almost apologetically, "I hope you like Jim Steinman." As anyone who has read more than five words from me knows, I ADORE Jim Steinman and consider him a personal hero, so using not one but two of his tunes in the film (albeit in the final 15 minutes, by which point I had already realized this one wasn't up to par) was a good way to at least send me out of the theater in a good mood.

Back to Carpenter though, it's important for every person seeing this movie to understand that Halloween wasn't what he was talking about (nor was it Ghosts of Mars, the framed poster of which was behind him in his video, which delighted me). Despite the plots having nothing to do with each other, his biggest shoutouts were The Fog and Christine, which I respect since most people paying tribute to JC go with Halloween, The Thing, or Escape From New York (well, they used to. Now they get sued). So when a car and its driver are set on fire and they keep pursuing a protagonist, you just have to kind of roll with it and, if you can, appreciate that he's going all out with his attempt to homage Christine in this non-supernatural film, rather than let Man in the Mask or one of the others just act like Michael Myers in the film's scope playground. As for The Fog, the homage is basically just stealing the main theme for his new score (not by the original's Tomandandy), which I found very distracting, almost obnoxious at times, but thankfully for Roberts and co. the average (read: younger) moviegoer who thinks of Taken's daughter and Smallville when they think of "The Fog" won't even notice it.

Roberts doesn't just fawn over Carpenter the whole time, thankfully. Most curiously, he employs a lot of zooms that seem inspired by Italian gialli of the 70s, one of which is used for a terrific beat where you think you're about to get an Exorcist III shears kill kinda thing but end up with a more crowd-pleasing alternative. On that note, again trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, this one is less grim than the original, so if that one's bummer ending left you cold I think you'll be more satisfied here, as the heroes do at least get to fight back a bit more. In fact, I think the people who will enjoy this the most are those who didn't see the original at all - and I should stress there's no real need to see it beforehand if you haven't yet, as there is no connection to it (not even an obligatory newspaper clipping about the first film's events). Since they're just doing the same kind of thing, the novelty won't be worn off like it was for me, and you won't be "waiting" for the scattered bits that are more inspired, liked when Man in the Mask has a victim dead to rights in a car and he takes a moment to find a good song on the radio to listen to while he finishes the person off (this isn't one of the Steinman song parts, I should note - but I would have lost my shit if it was "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", even if it was a bit on the nose).

So that's why this is a tough review to write - it all sounds negative, but really apart from the not-great choice to off one of the family members so quickly (though even that might legit shock some and work; just didn't for me) there's nothing BAD about the movie - it's just going through the motions. It almost feels like we're actually on The Strangers 4 or 5 (ideally where they'd be by now, using usual franchise scheduling) and they know that the die-hards will show up and be satisfied to see their now-iconic killers doing their thing again, the way people defend certain later installments of the Friday the 13th or Elm Street series. Maybe I was expecting a bit too much after all this time (to be fair, I know some of the delay was due to various studio issues - this one is not from the same distributor as the original, you might notice), so perhaps I'll like it more in repeat viewings if I ever find the time for them, but for now my final word is that the less you care about the original film, the more likely you are to enjoy its sequel.

What say you?


The Lullaby [Siembamba] (2018)

MARCH 7, 2018


I rarely write negative reviews of smaller films anymore, figuring it's a waste of my time to tell people not to bother seeing an off-the-radar movie they probably weren't going to see anyway, saving my negative energy for bigger films like Winchester - if I can prevent just one person from seeing that one, it will be worth it! But in the case of The Lullaby (titled Siembamba on-screen, but Lullaby in its marketing), I wanted to use the space to deliver some good news: I no longer get as upset about baby stuff in horror movies! From fall of 2013 (when my wife got pregnant) until about... uh, yesterday I guess, the sight of babies in harm really got to me, as I would start panicking about potential danger my own son could be in while I was watching some dumb horror movie with my phone on silent. But in the first few minutes of this thing, we see a baby get its neck broken, and throughout the film our protagonist is battling postpartum depression and in turn the instinct to kill her own son, complete with hallucinations of actually doing so - and I was fine with it!

Then again maybe I haven't gotten over my paranoia and it's just because the movie was too lousy to let it bother me. It's not like I thought Darrell Roodt, the director of Dracula 3000 and Prey, would be able to pull off one of those "Is she going crazy or is something really after her?" storylines, but even my low expectations weren't even met, as the film wasn't terrible enough to entertain. Instead it was just excruciatingly dull, failing to generate a single scare or even bit of suspense, while also (quite frustratingly!) refusing to go into crazy batshit territory that could have saved it. The term "baby blues" is used once or twice, and I couldn't help but think of that same-named film and how it dove right into things that are in very poor taste (namely, a woman murdering her children), while this one settled for an endless series of scenes where the woman just IMAGINES doing so.

The setup at least holds some promise: a young woman has a child that she doesn't seem to want (her depression kicks in the second the baby is born, in fact), and the only place she can stay is back with her mother, who she has a strained relationship with on account of running away not too long ago. She is having trouble pumping breast milk or getting the child to latch (not that we ever see this; we're just told so an hour into the movie - the baby is rarely shown doing anything but sleeping), and starts having terrible visions of the poor little guy being covered in blood, stored in a freezer, etc. For what seems like an eternity, the movie breaks down like this: she's trying to sleep, something troubles her, she checks on the baby, sees him dead, shrieks, then her mom races into the room and shows her a perfectly fine baby before reminding her about this or that rule of motherhood ("cut his nails", "let him cry it out", etc). Then the cycle resumes, with no clear indication that things are getting worse or how much time has passed in between. The actress playing the mom is fine, but she's also in "total wreck" mode from the start, which doesn't help at all as she looks no more harried at the end than she did ten minutes into the movie. You could rearrange 75% of the film's scenes and it wouldn't make any difference.

We are given precious few breaks from this routine in the form of a psychiatrist who seems to be evil, because he collects butterflies like someone out of a giallo and inexplicably encourages the older woman to leave her very rattled daughter alone with the baby, while also prescribing mysterious pills to the girl. But the script never really follows through with this element; the closest we get to a payoff is a weird look on his face during an epilogue, where she's been put in an institute for the crimes she commits during the film. They also keep teasing out the mystery of the baby's father, suggesting there might be some Rosemary's Baby-style twist to the whole thing, or maybe even the doctor himself (who seems to be fascinated by a story where the townsfolk killed a baby over a century ago). But then, near the very end of the movie we find out she was raped by a guy who she hitchhiked with, a wholly unnecessary scene that is, incredulously, followed by ANOTHER rape scene.

The rapist in this second instance is a friend named Evan who we know has been pining over her for years. In keeping with the film's tradition of dropping the ball on everything and refusing to ever go into interesting territory, he never seems to even acknowledge the baby's existence (he also never seems to notice or care that she looks sick most of the time), settling only for generic "Why don't you like me, we should be together!" MRA shit, as opposed to spending a single one of his 10-15 minutes of screentime telling us anything about him. I don't know why the filmmakers thought we needed back to back rape scenes in the third act of their supernatural story, but for the good of mankind I hope someone at least SUGGESTED perhaps spending less time on rape and more time on making anything interesting. Not that I champion such scenes in any scenario, but when they're part of a film that is grounded in character and have some true reason to exist at the time they do (Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind) I don't think twice about their inclusion. Here, it's just pointless shock value, and tells us nothing. Chloe was already having a rough life when she ran away, and unless I am very confused at how pregnancy works, she doesn't come back home until the baby is born i.e. nine months later, meaning that the attack wasn't even enough of a traumatic experience to send her running back home, realizing how much worse she could have it. It's just awful.

Luckily, the movie gets one thing right: screenwriter Tarryn-Tanille Prinsloo either has a child of her own or did proper research, as they get a number of things about newborns right that you probably wouldn't think of unless you were in the thick of it. For example, one thing I didn't know until I had my own is that baby fingernails are like little Freddy razors and need to be cut constantly, as they can/will scratch themselves up good (very sensitive/still-developing skin plays a part in that), so when it was used as a scare I kind of bowed a bit of respect to the film. Likewise the various problems with pumping/latching will ring true to anyone who had to deal with it themselves; in fact a pump mishap is the closest the movie ever got to offering a genuinely good terror moment. I remember I took some shit for liking Annabelle (the first one) because it was so steeped in "I am a new parent and I am terrified about my baby being hurt" fears, so I have to wonder if a. I'll still be as enamored by the film if I watched it now that I'm better, and/or b. if I saw this three or so years ago if I'd find it more engaging.

Either way, it shouldn't take a personal paranoia for a film to work. I mean, I'm not particularly afraid of a masked killer chasing me around a mine shaft anytime soon, but I still love My Bloody Valentine. A good film's a good film, and this is a very bad one. The scares don't work, the characters are drawn thinner than most slasher victims, and the director kept throwing in pointless stylistic tics like jump cuts that only caused confusion (he also had trouble distinguishing flashback scenes from current day). Nothing about it worked, and if not for the one guy in the theater that wasn't part of my group of four, I probably would have yelled at the screen on more than one occasion. The most interesting thing about the movie, besides the somewhat catchy theme song during the end titles, is that I somehow managed to stay awake despite the fact that it didn't start until after 10pm. I should have just slept.

What say you?


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