The best thing you can say about The Strangers: Prey at Night, the sequel to writer-director Bryan Bertino’s 2008 home-invasion creeper, is that it reminds you the original exists. That’s not entirely a backhanded compliment: The Strangers is a minimalist horror masterpiece, a bottled-up experiment in terror that gains much of its strength from what it doesn’t do. Stranding Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in a remote single-story house menaced by three masked figures, the movie unwinds with a slow, sick certainty, like a nightmare you can’t manage to wake up from. Its most frightening moment is an unbroken shot lasting almost one minute in which Tyler’s character smokes a cigarette and gets herself a glass of water, unaware that a man in a crude sackcloth mask is watching her from the far side of the screen. Apart from the soft pad of her feet on the carpet, the scene is nearly silent, with no orchestral sting underlining the looming threat, and when she turns around, he’s vanished, but the movie has succeeded in making us afraid of empty spaces and the human monsters that might at any moment step into them.
The Strangers’ pared-down style makes it particularly unsuited for the sequel treatment: Absent some Aliens-style conceptual twist, the best a 10-years-later follow-up could hope to do is ably copy the original, and it doesn’t take long for the new film to indicate it’s incapable of doing even that. The script, credited to Bertino and Ben Katai, resets the action in a deserted trailer park, essentially a series of tin cans surrounded by rural nothingness, and increases the besieged cast to a family of four: Mom (Christina Hendricks), Dad (Martin Henderson), and their two teenage kids, sullen Kinsey (Bailee Madison) and jockish Luke (Lewis Pullman). But director Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) doesn’t take long to indicate that he’s as determined to lean into well-worn horror-movie tropes as the original film was to invert them. No rib-nudging musical cue is spared, no ominous push-in goes unpushed. Where the first movie, which begins with Tyler’s character rejecting Speedman’s proposal of marriage, subtly positions the masked strangers as a warped reflection of a nuclear family—a man in a suit, a sexualized “pinup girl,” and a cherub-faced baby doll—Prey at Night scores its first killings with Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” the equivalent of having Bugs Bunny lean into the frame with an arrow-shaped sign reading, “Get it?”
Prey at Night’s kids, to borrow another classic-rock turn of phrase, are not all right. Kinsey is on her way to boarding school, a last-ditch measure by her financially strapped family to keep her out of trouble, and Luke resents her soaking up all of their parents’ attention (as well as their spare cash). But they’re nothing compared to the strangers themselves, who, even though we never see their faces, read as viciously conscienceless young adults. They delight in toying with their eventual victims, leaving marks of their presence, such as words scrawled on a window or cellphones smashed to bits, without actually being seen. The way they appear and vanish is almost supernatural, and it deliberately mimics the way horror movies toy with their audiences; there’s a bit in the first film where Speedman is desperately rifling through his car and a finger menacingly makes its way into the frame to tap him on the shoulder, barely a half step away from having someone actually jump out and yell, “Boo!” But in Prey at Night, that game takes on the sickening regularity of a slasher movie, with victims periodically fed into the movie’s maw to keep the tension up.
Roberts does bring one nifty new visual idea to the meat-grinding party, a long take involving a body floating in a swimming pool, but it’s not enough to justify even the film’s brief length, and none of the performances rise to the level of Tyler’s carefully calibrated panic. But the movie’s biggest mistake is indulging conventional horror-movie reality, where characters live or die according to their fortitude and our sense of the world’s rightness is conservatively reaffirmed. In The Strangers, Tyler’s character forlornly asks the strangers why they’ve chosen her to torment, and the answer is starkly chilling in its amorality: “Because you were home.” Prey at Night has a character repeat the query, and the answer this time is more glibly anarchic: Why not? If you asked why the movie was made, you’d probably get the same response.