Continuing the theme of films featuring senseless acts of violence, we examine 2008’s chilling home invasion horror “The Strangers” and its 2018 sequel.
Last week, I wrote about what kind of movie scares me. It was those where it’s just a random act of violence — one without rhyme or reason. Not a boogeyman or a grudge killer but random violence simply for the sake of violence. In the previous column, I picked Funny Games as one of the best examples. This week, it’s The Strangers and it’s not nearly as effective sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night.
2008’s The Strangers begins with the warning that this is based on a true story. Writer and director Bryan Bertino was inspired by Charles Manson and the Manson family murders, some break-ins in his hometown, and the Keddie Cabin Murders. It also includes what I consider to be one of the scariest lines in cinema. At the climax of the movie, Kristen pleads with the strangers, “Why are you doing this?” Dollface pleasantly answers, “Because you were home.” This is the line that haunts me.
James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) arrive at a secluded summer home after attending a wedding. What was supposed to be a romantic celebration has turned into an awkward night. James proposed, but Kristen declines, saying she isn’t ready. James calls his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) to pick him up. Someone knocks on the door. A young woman is standing there and asks “Is Tamara home?” They tell her she has the wrong address.
James starts a fire in the fireplace for Kristen, and then he decided to run for some cigarettes. Not long after he leaves, Kristen begins to suspect she is not alone in the house. While James is gone, she is tormented by the eponymous strangers — three characters in masks billed as Dollface (Gemma Ward), Pinup Girl (Laura Margolis) and Man in Mask (Kip Weeks). When James returns, Kristen tells him what’s happened. He returns to the car for his cell phone, only to find the car and phone trashed.
What follows is a night of terror, and it is effectively shot, taking advantage of the seclusion to create a very claustrophobic atmosphere. Bertino builds the action and intensity nicely, and he uses music (mostly on an old record player) very effectively. Even after several viewings and knowing what is going to happen, I find myself cringing as I watch it. Without spoiling it, the ending is one of the best and most bleak I’ve seen in a horror film in recent years.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the sequel.
The Strangers: Prey at Night features our same three strangers now portrayed by Emma Bellomy (Dollface), Lea Enslin (Pinup Girl) and Damian Maffei (Man in Mask). This movie is again written by Bertino, but directorial duties were handed over to Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down).
The movie opens with The Strangers killing a couple in a vacation mobile home park. It then cuts to a family on a road trip. Mike (Martin Henderson) and Cindy (Christina Hendricks) are traveling with their son Luke (Lewis Pullman – son of Bill Pullman) and their daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison). Kinsey has gotten into trouble, and they are taking her to a boarding school, much to her dismay. Stopping off in the same mobile home park to stay with some relatives, they soon find themselves being stalked by the strangers.
Up to this point, the movie is off to a good start. The terror is effective and the cast is solid, but with a whole park to explore, it loses some of the claustrophobic feeling…and some of the plausibility. The strangers seem to locate them a little too easily each time they sneak off.
After a couple of effective death scenes though, the movie becomes a hybrid of the original film and your standard revenge flick. Either our killers have become less effective or they have met their match in the young protagonists. Regardless, the movie loses most of the creepiness factor when our killers start to lose their upper hand.
There is even an attempt at mimicking the line I loved in the original. When confronted by Dollface, Kinsey screams, “Why are you doing this?” Dollface answers, “Why not?” Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.
The one thing Bertino and Roberts get right with this second outing is the music. The soundtrack is perfect, putting fun 80s music like “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” by Air Supply, “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde, and “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany in direct contrast with some horrific scenes.
With an ending almost directly ripped from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the sequel to The Strangers feels like what it is, a knock-off of better movies.
So do yourself a favor, if you haven’t seen the 2018 original, remedy that right now. If your a completionist (I am), you’ll want to see the sequel. Just don’t set your expectations too high.
The Strangers Trailer