Roberts: The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)
One of the grimmest and most nihilistic horror films of the 2000s, The Strangers was so unrelenting and enduring in its vision that it seemed to have precluded a sequel, let alone the straight-to-DVD serialisation that was so popular at the time it was released. From the outset, then, there’s something improbable and unexpected about Prey at Night, which, coming over a decade later, begs the question of whether it qualifies as a sequel at all, so loosely and diffusely does it link up with the events of the original film. That’s not to say that it doesn’t employ many of the same tropes, or even follow roughly the same plot, but that the time that has elapsed, combined with the diffuse atmosphere of both films, makes this “sequel” conform to the loose continuity that has reigned since digital streaming collapsed the distinction between anthologized and classical seriality. Like the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, then, Prey at Night seems to signal an emergent shared universe more than any kind of ongoing continuity, in part because that assurance of continuity – continuity of family, of home, of class – is what both films, in their own ways, so mercilessly and brutally foreclose.
Part of what gave The Strangers such a unique tone was that it opened with a particularly grim image of domestic disharmony before the “strangers” themselves even arrived – a couple on their way home from what was supposed to be a surprise engagement dinner, but that ended with an even more surprising rejection. That suffused the first act of the film with an extraordinary sense of pain and melancholy, lending the home invasion an almost unbearably traumatic import when it finally took centre stage in the screenplay. While Prey at Night might not open quite so bleakly, we’re still presented with a family in dispersal and disarray, travelling cross-country across what appears to be the American Midwest in order to take their daughter to a remote boarding school, and bringing their son along for the ride. It becomes clear, early on, that the couple in question are estranged from their daughter, and that the decision to send her to boarding school has estranged them even further, but also that the boarding school fees are set to make a fairly hefty dent in their savings and security. Combined with some largely unarticulated and unresolved tension between daughter and parents – between every member of the family, really – their rapport feels tenuous even before they stop for the night at a family friends’ caravan park.
From the prologue, however, we know that this park and its inhabitants have been overtaken and disposed of by the “strangers” of the original film – nondescript, anonymous home invaders who sometimes wear masks, and sometimes don’t wear masks (but keeping their faces in shadow), and who appear to move from house to house, killing people as they go. Their motivation, however, is unclear, and remains unclear, since while they murder everyone they come across they also seem to study them and to even admire them, mimicking their body language and orientation towards domestic spaces – effectively framing and emulating them as a mise-en-scene – before disposing of them. While their motivation may be impossible to discern, then, it’s perhaps not surprising that the strangers have gravited towards this caravan park, which also features a fair number of cabins – the main family are staying in one – and in fact looks a bit like a suburban blueprint that has been laid out for their study and convenience, replete with every familial fixture imaginable. As with the opening film, then, Prey at Night takes place in an odd, exurban zone that is not quite rural, but not quite suburban either, although in this case the anonymity is offset by the very clear nod in the direction of 80s cinema, with the approach to the caravan park feeling drawn straight out of the Friday the 13th franchise. The effect, however, is not one of nostalgia exactly, but of belatedness – like visiting a park in the immediate aftermath of a slasher rampage – as if the family are already somehow too late the moment they arrive.
As that might suggest, the strangers themselves are barely needed for Prey at Night to be scary, especially since the family – like the original couple – arrive at the site of their imminent home invasion after a day of total physical and emotional exhaustion. One of the most striking signatures of the original film was the way in which the strangers made themselves felt – and here, as there, they don’t act so much as simply loom, appearing in quite uncanny ways in the background and then absorbing themselves back into the background just as rapidly. To that end, Roberts favours long, slow pans that force you to shift your sense of scale and perception, while the size of the park, its massive voids, the omniscient sodium light and creeping mist all combine to rob his long, steady shots of any one single or stable point of focus. Defying you to find a “centre” to his compositions, Roberts evokes a nondescript and notional space in which people can loom out of the murk in quite sudden and suspenseful ways, or in which the camera’s own zooms are often unnoticeable until they take you to the very crisis of suspense. While there are some incredible jump scares, they don’t tend to feature the strangers acting directly – at least not until the very end – with Roberts perpetually dissociating the more visceral moments of shock from the looming presence of the strangers, who are always out there, somewhere, in the background. While the background is always a creepy and indeterminate space in horror films, that’s taken to an extreme here, ensuring that no background – however visible or comforting – ever feels totally safe, and that the caravan park in its entirety feels like one giant background, suffused with an eerie blankness that falls across it like a gathering fog.
In particular, Roberts fuses the sodium light and omniscient mist to disrupt any distinction between inside and outside, or between suburban sanctuary and the strangers’ strangeness. As the family scramble from one cabin to the next, the suburban cues multiply even as they’re paired with a profound sense of placelessness, dissociating the action from any sense of being able to get fully inside or fully outside. Growing both more specific and more abstract as they proceed, these spaces set suburban fixtures against a ballooning void of sodum-drenched mist, as all the thresholds so precious to suburban horror – windows, windscreens, front doors – are rendered especially notional and free-floating, just as the strangers themselves appropriate the most comforting of domestic tropes for their own nihilistic purposes. And they are nihilistic – more nihilistic than nearly other home invaders in recent horror cinema – since for all the impoverished digitalese of the strangers, we never get the slightest hint of their motivations or receive anything resembling a backstory. While slashers like Michael Meyers or Jason Vorhees might be renowned for their blankness, a film like The Strangers makes you realise just how individuated they were – if only by other characters – since the home invaders here are so barely articulated that it’s unclear whether they’re even the strangers from the original film, or the next generation.
Whereas the strangers of the original film said that they did it “because you were home,” the strangers of this film simply respond “Why not?” when the remaining members of the family quiz them as to their motivations. Inscrutable to the last, not even the gung-ho conclusion – a departure from the original – can draw out their designs, or force them to articulate anything resembling a regular subjectivity. More than nearly any other slasher or home invader I’ve seen on the big screen, then, the strangers embody the alterity invested in the deepest and most primal fears of everything that disrupts nuclear suburbia – stranger danger – which is perhaps why their scariest moments come when they simply occupy the same spaces as the family, adopting and appropriating their body language in an eerily casual and even affectionate manner. It’s at these moments that the film really articulates the horror of home invasion movies – not simply of being harmed, or debilitated, or killed, but of being replaced and (especially for suburban patriarchs) of seeing another family set up house under your own roof. No wonder, then, that the film reserves its most gruesome moment for the head of this family, who finds his groin impaled while trying to escape by car, trapped in the driver’s seat as one of the strangers takes the passenger seat to kill him.
There is, however, a slight counterpoint here that’s not present in the original film, and that reflects the shifting tides of horror stylistics over the last ten years – namely, the plethora of 80s references, some of which are promulgated by the parents, but most of which are the domain of the strangers themselves, who seem to enjoy tinting their kills with tropes from classic slasher and horror films. Yet that association of the strangers with these 80s references imbues even the most nostalgic or ironic of moments – such as a scene scored to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – with their own radical alterity, until it feels as if the strangers’ perusal of 80s tropes and their perusal of their chosen families are part of the same process. If you imagined a film about radically alien beings who tried to learn about family dynamics from 80s horror films, and then apply them to the present, you would probably get something like the last act of Prey at Night, which interrogates more than conforms to the prevalence of 80s nostalgia that has taken horror cinema by storm in the last decade. It may be, then, that the greatest achievement of Prey at Night lies in using a space that is so bound up with 80s iconography, but abstracting it until it feels entirely cut off from even the most residual of affectionate attachments. By the time we return to the caravan park reception in the closing scenes – so warm and familiar at the beginning – it feels like another world, cold as the end of the original film, and almost as original in the way it reimagines it.
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