PARKS AND DESECRATION

THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT (15)

Director: Johannes Roberts

Screenplay: Ben Ketai

Starring: Christina HendricksBailee MadisonMartin Henderson

Review: David Stephens

If there’s one film that is the quintessential “home invasion” movie then it’s Bryan Bertino’s 2008 creep-fest “The Strangers”. Also written by Bertino, it tells the simplistic story of a blameless couple terrorised by a trio of masked psychos. Branded with the usual unreliable subtext of “inspired by true events”, it actually hit its core target very hard and became a cult film within the genre community. The writer/director said that it was based on infamous incidents like the Manson family massacre and Keddie Cabin Murders, as well as a childhood memory where prospective burglars knocked on doors to empty-looking properties. The protagonists in the film (Liv Tyler as Kristen McKay and Scott Speedman as James Hoyt) are guilty of only answering the door to a stranger, before being tortured and victimised by 3 anonymous villains , unusually 2 women and 1 man known simply as Dollface, Man in the Mask, and Pin-Up. Their identities are superfluous as much as their actions are despicable. Despite its reputation the film didn’t get a great critical reception and even now only holds middling scores on RT and Metacritic. However, it made over $82m worldwide from a $9m budget. The sequel has been in a loooo-ooong development stage, before being ultimately handed to Johannes Roberts (“47 Metres Down”) to helm. It’s been out in the states for a while but it’s only just been released in UK cinemas. So YGROY bars the doors and waves a baseball bat before taking a look…

After a creepy prologue where three shadowy figures call at the trailer of an elderly couple (which has a suitably familiar feel to it), we begin in Cincinnati and meet parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” fame) and Mike (Martin Henderson from “The Ring”). Their teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison, looking uncannily like a younger Katie Holmes throughout) is going through the rebellious-and-shitty-attitude phase, so she’s being taken cross-country to a strict boarding school, as her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) tags along with the family. They’re due to stay overnight at a trailer park owned by the Aunt and Uncle to break up the journey, so they pull into the deserted out-of-season site and settle into their accommodation. Pretty quickly a young woman knocks on the door (face obscured by the darkness, naturally) and asks if “Tamara” is home. (NB: Fans of the first film will know that name does NOT forebode well). Sent on her way, it signals the start of a long, dark night of terror for the family, who may become victims only because they were there…

The film also starts with a “Based on True Events” subtitle… and if you believe that, then you’ll also think that “Fargo” was a documentary. Whilst the film had great early reviews from some genre sites, it faced a bit of a backlash from the mainstream critics and some fans. (NB: Us Brits could sit back and watch that play out. Hey, if you release a film here two months behind everybody else… what do you expect us to do in the meantime?). And in a way it’s easy to have (and understand the) mixed feelings for the film, because it is not a straightforward sequel to the 2008 original. What it does is take the central concept and antagonists (if indeed they are the same “Strangers”), and slot them into an intentional homage to 80’s slashers and the genre itself. So there are call-backs to “The Strangers” with the “Tamara” reference, and the same (?) masked psychos Dollface, Man in the Mask, and Pin-Up. But what Roberts stated in the pre-release promos, was that he wanted to channel the influences of John Carpenter and the classic stalk n’ slash. And that’s exactly what he’s done here, because the movie evolves into a latter-day “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th”, rather than continue the queasy realism of the predecessor.

And you ARE going to get the 80’s references! There’s no avoiding them, as the soundtrack is chock-full of tunes from that era. Starting with Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, and with plenty more where that came from. In all honesty the constant obsession with nostalgic pop music does get a little tiresome in the latter stages. Although there is still something undeniably cool about a bloke in a burlap mask, savagely swinging an axe to Bonnie Tyler singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart”! There’s also a character who wears a “Ramones” T-Shirt and a reference to Tetris. But it is (supposedly) set in “modern times”, because those pesky mobile phones are in evidence… although they get quickly taken out of the equation. It’s not just the ambience though, as there are some great scenes that intentionally “rip-off” similar moments from previous classic horrors. Devoted followers of the genre will totally get the sequences that owe everything to “Christine” and the original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. The whole thing visually matches some of the eeriness from old-school horror as well, the trailer park is permanently shrouded in mist and lit by streetlights, playground swings move lazily in the breeze, and glimpsed figures lurk on the fringe of the camera frame. Even the title is in “Halloween” font and cast over a crimson swirl.

Whilst the disturbing “realism” and pervasive nihilism of the first film is missing, TS: PAN does have a few bravura scenes that come close to being absolutely breath-taking. The swimming-pool sequence has been quite rightly drawn out for praise and is hands-down the best moment in the film. But the disturbing moment where the Man in the Mask gets into a car, and calmly commits a savage act with an air of sadness, is pretty disturbing in its simplicity. The initial appearances by Dollface are also admirably creepy. That said, the adherence to the throw-back horror theme does draw out some negative connotations. There are some tropes which could be generously described as “satirical” or maybe just annoying. Examples include; characters going to investigate suspicious noises rather than running away from them, characters running in a straight line from a pursuing vehicle (*cough*Prometheus*cough*), and the requisite dumb decisions (and driving). If you take a shot of alcohol every time someone says; “Why are you doing this to us?” or “Leave us alone”… you won’t last long. And the “plot” is so simple that it makes some of the “Friday the 13th” films look like “Inception” by comparison.

At the end of the night…err, day, your perception of this film is probably going to hinge on how much you relate to slashers and the nostalgia connected to some of the horror films of yesteryear. If you’re not a pure-blooded horror fan, this may well leave you cold (and this was the case for some at the screening we went to). If you’re dementedly excited for the forthcoming Blumhouse “Halloween” reboot though, then this could well and truly slash that itch you’ve got whilst you’re waiting. In all honesty, it could have been a little better in several respects, and post-“Scream” (and even “Happy Death Day”) people really expect a little more meat from their slashers these days. But we couldn’t help but raise the rating slightly for the sheer brilliance of a few sequences, which rival the visual excellence of some Italian Giallo movies or other great pre-millennium visual terrors. Not a classic and probably not what some people were hoping for in a sequel. But it is a well-crafted salute to some of the great moments in slasher history, and will strike a chord with many genre aficionados. Exchange some glances with this night.

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Not so much a sequel or follow-up but a standalone “love-letter” to the high-profile 80’s slashers. TS: PAN has some bravura sequences, some gorgeous visuals, and a relentless quality to it. But it succeeds less as a cohesive story or a compelling narrative. It’s going to leave non-genre fans cold, but if you hanker for the glory days of The Shape and Jason, you could fall prey to it.
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