Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review Double Feature: The Strangers (2008) and The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

I'm as surprised as you that they made a sequel to The Strangers after ten years, and just as surprised that it wasn't garbage. So, for another double feature, I went and watched both the original film and its sequel back-to-back this past Sunday. How were they? Read on...

The Strangers (2008)

Rated R for violence/terror and language (unrated version reviewed)

Score: 3 out of 5

I remember The Strangers absolutely terrifying me when I first saw it in theaters. And I wasn't some little kid, either; I was eighteen years old at the time, and had sat through quite a few graphic and genuinely scary horror movies by then. With a sequel having just come out this weekend, I thought it might be fun to revisit an old favorite of mine from when I was younger, especially given that it's built up a reputation since as a minor cult classic and one of the better films in the "home invasion" subgenre. And while it didn't entirely hold up, enough parts of it worked that I can see why it's still regarded fairly well ten years later. It takes one of the most common criticisms of mainstream slasher flicks, that they're nothing more than plotless carnage where blood and guts substitute for character development and motivation, and not only recognizes it, but makes it the driving focus of its terror and subtext: that all of this is happening for no reason whatsoever beyond "some psychos felt like it". It is stripped down to a fault, the acting often drags down the proceedings, and there are one too many obvious plot contrivances, but when it works, it is on the strength of solid direction and its menacing, enigmatic villains producing an intense little movie.

Our protagonists are Kristen and James, two lovers who are spending the night at a vacation home owned by the latter's family after attending a wedding. It didn't go well; James proposed to Kristen there, but she said no, ruining his plans for the evening (he was going to hold a candlelit dinner for her at the house) while causing them both to wonder about the future of their relationship. Then a trio of masked intruders, one man and two women, start stalking the property, and what follows is an hour-long game of cat and mouse as Kristen and James must fight for survival against predators who have decided, for whatever reason, to kill them. It doesn't get much more complicated than that; all of the character development for the protagonists comes in the first twenty minutes, and after that, it's them versus the killers all the way to the end.

And honestly, I think that the lack of development for the main characters hurt the film a fair bit. We're given little reason beyond the opening to care about Kristen and James, especially since we almost never see any hints of their frayed relationship after the mayhem starts. It felt almost pointless to spend so much time establishing that things between them were troubled given that this is never paid off in the slightest after the first act. If the film used the traumatic events they go through to examine their relationship in any way, I might have been able to care more about them, but instead, the film spends little time establishing who they are before it jumps into the horror straight in at the deep end. Furthermore, the two of them both grab onto the idiot ball and refuse to let go. From investigating an opened door that's strongly implied (to both the audience and the characters) to have a killer behind it, to jumping into a car to look for a phone even though the car's been ransacked, Kristen and James prove throughout the film that they are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, making numerous stupid moves that seem to exist only to keep the plot moving. It might also have helped if they'd gotten some better actors to play them. Scott Speedman was acceptable (though not exceptional) as James, especially given that his role is the smaller of the two, but Liv Tyler had to do most of the heavy lifting as Kristen, and her performance was very uneven. When she wasn't speaking, or when she was screaming in terror, she was good, but her line delivery throughout the film left to be a lot to be desired. Her voice constantly sounded flat and monotone even when Kristen was supposed to be sad or scared, and it frequently pulled me right out of the proceedings. Between the shaky acting and the lack of development, the main characters often felt like blank slates for the audience to project themselves onto, rather than actual people who we might want to see escape from this terror, and as a result, the film lacked a sense of humanity that would've gotten me more invested.

The killers and the terror they inflict, on the other hand, worked far better, and are undoubtedly the reason why this film is still so well-regarded. The killers have a great and memorable look to them, with the man (implied to be the leader, especially given that this was based on the Manson Family murders) combining a suit with a burlap sack over his head like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2, and the two women accompanying him both wearing creepy Halloween masks resembling a doll and a '50s pinup. The film goes out of its way to not show us their faces, the viewer only getting a partial glimpse at one of the women unmasked, and like hell it's gonna give the viewer a motive; all we get is one of the women saying "because you were home" when asked why they're doing this. They are a menace that comes out of nowhere, for no reason whatsoever, and while the cold distance the film takes from its subject matter hurt it when it came to giving me reason to care about its protagonists, it worked wonders when it came to establishing these thrill killers as a threat. Their lack of any motive or explanation gives their attack a sense of randomness, as though this could happen to anybody -- like you, in your own home. On that note, writer/director Bryan Bertino made excellent use of the house that the characters all find themselves in and around, the film always giving the viewer a great sense of location and where everything is except the stuff that it doesn't want us to know. This little home felt lived-in and authentic, a nice, cozy little death trap. This does occasionally work against the film when it raises questions as to just how the killers were able to pull off certain things while the viewers weren't looking, particularly the various messages they left for Kristen and James scrawled on the walls and windows, but overall, the effect of it is to leave tension around every corner.

The Bottom Line

While an undoubtedly flawed film, this is still worth watching for fans of these sorts of home invasion thrillers, held up largely by its direction even when the writing and acting failed it.


And now, for the sequel...

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)

Rated R for horror violence and terror throughout, and for language

Score: 4 out of 5

It's odd to prefer a horror sequel over the original, especially when a) the original is so well-regarded, and b) it's been ten years and it's seemingly been made solely to cash in on the name recognition of a slightly older film that's still too recent to remake. Then again, I'm somebody who thought that the original Strangers is kind of overrated and didn't entirely hold up on repeat viewing, but that its core premise was sound and could undoubtedly be improved upon with better execution. In other words, a perfect film to remake. And let's be clear, The Strangers: Prey at Night is a remake in all but name, borrowing from the original its villains, its basic setup, and little else. Instead, we get a brand new cast of characters and a whole new setting, moving the action from a vacation home to a campground/RV park. So how did it turn out? Well, you already know the answer: I think it produced a superior film. Despite being undoubtedly derivative of other, better horror films from the likes of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, it fixes or otherwise improves upon virtually every fault that plagued its predecessor, without losing sight of what made it work so well. I am happy that I did not skip this one.

The premise is the same: three killers, credited as the Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl, hunt some people down at an isolated location in the middle of the night. However, instead of a couple going through bumps in their relationship, our protagonists here are a family of four, the mother Cindy, the father Mike, and their two teenage children, their son Luke and their troubled daughter Kinsey, who they are in the midst of taking to a boarding school. It's a long drive, so they stay overnight at Gatlin Lake, an RV/trailer park whose residents have mostly gone home after the summer holidays, with their uncle Marv and aunt Cheryl (both permanent residents) leaving them the key to a neighbor's trailer. Unfortunately, before they got there, Marv and Cheryl were brutally murdered by the titular strangers. The family is wandering into a death trap.

Right away, with these new characters, this film comes in bearing one important quality that its predecessor lacked: humanity. Despite having twice as many protagonists as the first film, I was far more invested in any one of them than I was in both Kristen and James, and that is because this film actually focuses on and fleshes out their relationships with one another. Kinsey hates her parents and thinks they're sending her off to boarding school to get her out of their hair. What we see of Cindy and Mike indicates that their daughter's probably right, as they hope to rekindle their love life with Kinsey away and Luke going off to college next year. Luke and Kinsey frequently bicker and argue like siblings always do. And yet, when the shit hits the fan, they remember that they are a family, and it crushes them when they start dying. Kinsey blames herself for all of it, as they wouldn't even be at this place if she wasn't such a screw-up that it drove her parents to send her off to reform school, forcing Luke to remind her of the good times they had together as kids. While the original film kept its distance from the main characters, observing them but refusing to let us get to know them as people, Prey at Night thrusts the viewers right into its protagonists' lives, making it far more agonizing when they are put into harm's way, all the way up to a dark ending establishing that even those who survived are likely gonna be fucked up for life. I actually wanted these characters to survive. It also helped that, whereas both Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler's performances felt phoned-in last time, here the cast proves far more up for the material than before. It's odd seeing Christina Hendricks, the former Mad Men sexpot, playing a mom, but she pulls it off with flying colors here, as does Martin Henderson as the dad who's equally protective of his kids. Said kids are played by Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman, two actors who will likely have long careers ahead of them if they play their cards right, because they wind up carrying this film as siblings whose relationship is fleshed out over the course of the story as they fight to stay one step ahead of the killers.

The new director Johannes Roberts, who previously made the shark movie 47 Meters Down, is clearly aping directors who came before him throughout this film, from the retro-inspired opening credits to the heavy use of '80s pop songs in the soundtrack to a climatic scene lifted almost beat-for-beat from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He does little that's particularly new or innovative behind the camera, but you know what? If you're gonna steal, steal from the best. A Carpenter clone this may be, but it's one that, by and large, understands what worked about those films, going for a much faster pace and more bloodshed than the original film but in doing so making for a harrowing slasher story. The setting felt lifted from my memories of summers spent at a campground/RV park in northwestern New Jersey as a kid, now mostly abandoned for the off season and turned into a hunting ground, and it was put to great use throughout as the main characters fight for survival across abandoned trailers, pavilions, playgrounds, and a swimming pool. The script, co-written by the original film's creator Bryan Bertino, doesn't lose sight of the original's pointedly pointless portrayal of its killers' rampage, the few breadcrumbs it drops as to why they're doing this only making the black hole of their motive that much bigger. The sociopathy driving them is played up even more, most notably when one of our protagonists actually manages to unmask one of the killers and ask her why she's doing it. At the same time, their omnipotence is toned down; while they do just about everything they did in the original, far fewer plot holes and questions are left here about how they did it while the camera wasn't looking. The killers are as scary as ever here, what little humanization they're given merely making them that much more monstrous.

The Bottom Line

This film works on quite a different level from its predecessor, such that I can imagine fans of both films getting into bitter debates over which one is superior. That said, I'm of the opinion that this is the better film in just about every way, admittedly derivative but unapologetically so while making me care about its protagonists in a way that the original never could. It's a solid, well-made slasher that I expect to stick around.

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