Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Strangers: Prey At Night (2018) Review

I am almost certain that I saw The Strangers when it originally came out back in 2008, but even as I say that, I don’t remember anything about the movie that wasn’t in the trailer, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe that’s all I saw, and I’ve just invented the whole experience of seeing the full film in my head in retrospect. I’m only considering this now as a possibility because I am also almost certain that ten years from now when The Strangers 3: Strangers In A Strange Land comes out to the excitement of no one, I will also likely find myself struggling to remember if I actually saw the second film in the franchise, Strangers: Prey At Night or just the ads. I literally just watched this movie five minutes ago from the comfort of my own home, and it was either completely unmemorable, or it somehow gave me early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

I distinctly remember the trailer to this new Strangers outing, because it was one of the dumbest in recent memory. If you didn’t catch it, the set up presented your standard slasher formula with a group of people trapped in a secluded area being stalked by faceless killers in spooky masks, but then half way through, the scary music switched over to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” for no discernible reason, instantly removing any promise of tension the previous images might have suggested. At the time I just assumed this was a bit of too clever by half marketing done in the wake of Suicide Squad’s famous Bohemian Rhapsody ad that prompted a full on re-edit of the movie it was advertising. What I did not anticipate was that random kitchy 80’s music drops placed over the score with no apparent context would turn out to be this movies primary motif.

The plot is unremarkable to say the least: a family spending the weekend in a trailer cabin is stalked by what I think is implied to be another family of psychopaths who pick them off one by one, blah blah, final girl, blah blah. The music on the other hand almost pushes the movie into “so bad its good” territory, just with how blatant it is at trying to force a style onto material that was clearly filmed with no such style in mind. The kills are especially boring and unimaginative, but every time one of the killers approaches a victim, a random 80’s song starts playing out of nowhere, as if to beg the audience to appreciate what I think was a half-formed attempt at meta commentary beginning and ending with the superficial understanding that slasher movies were big in the 80’s and uptempo 80’s pop music would be cute juxtaposed against horrific violence.

Is it possible that an unfinished excuse for an idea like that combined with the perceived cache of an at best marginally well known IP is enough to green light a sequel to a movie ten years after the original? I didn’t think even I was that cynical, but there is literally nothing else about this movie that I can see anyone pitching a studio on. It’s not even like its set in the 80’s, which I assumed was the case until the teens brought out their smart phones, and its not satirizing or directly parodying anything related to the 80’ even if it is shamelessly cannibalizing the tropes of 80’s slashers because it has nothing original or interesting to do on its own. It’s just the music, and they don't even take the time to pick songs that have lyrics with ironic relevance to the action on screen to match the ironic tonal inconsistency. And come to think of it, I'm pretty sure "I Think We're Alone Now," the only one I can think of that would have had ironic relevance was switched out with a different song in the actual movie! It might seem like I’m harping on this, but its so obtrusive and annoying that it makes everything else that’s terrible about the movie pale in comparison.

There’s a scene at about the midway point where one of the characters is pinned inside of a crashed vehicle, helplessly watching as one of the killers approaches. The killer climbs into the passenger seat and his posture suggests that he’s relishing the opportunity to take his time on a prone victim, which might have been a creepy moment, except he takes time out to slowly turn on the radio and methodically find a station playing an 80’s song before he starts carving into his prey, as if its a required ritual before the bloodletting. I’m reminded of a joke from of all things the Adam Sandler comedy That’s My Boy, where Sandler’s drunken loser protagonist and his inexplicable best friend Vanilla Ice are racing to stop a wedding, and when their car ends up in a ditch, its revealed that the Meatloaf song scoring the scene was actually playing on a mix-tape, prompting Sander’s character to worry that he won’t be able to make it without his “kickin’ tunes”. It’s like that, but in a freaking horror movie that wants you to take it at least somewhat seriously.

This actually gets at one of the fundamental problems with how the music is specifically integrated into the action of the film - its diegetic to the story. These songs aren’t just playing over the soundtrack, it has to be presumed based on the sound design that the characters in the movie can actually hear the music as it plays. An earlier scene finds the mother and daughter trapped in a bathroom with the killer stabbing in the door, and as they attempt to escape through the skylight, the music continues, but muffled on the outside, so its clearly playing inside the house. There is no indication of exactly where the music is coming from, so we have to assume that the killer is wearing a hipstery 80’s walkman and turned it on just before deciding to attack. If this had been the joke, it might have worked if executed well, like maybe having the victims hear the catchy songs as ominous warnings or even use hearing the music as a tactical advantage, but there is otherwise no acknowledgement that its even happening. Later, Total Eclipse of the Heart is heard while a victim is attacked in a pool, but it is drowned out whenever he goes underwater, implying that we are hearing it as he does, which means the killer took the time to find a speaker system beforehand, because you just can’t put an axe in a dude without spinning that Bonnie Tyler LP first.

Admittedly, I’m focusing so much on this one stylistic element because the movie has so little else to offer even in things bad enough to criticize, which isn’t to say that the rest is good, but rather its so bland that I can barely summon up the ire to protest. You can imagine how well-written the movie is for example when the best line of dialogue concerns a man stubbornly insisting that the people around him explain to him what a queef is. And while I hate to boil down a movie like this to the creativity of the kills, I would be remiss in not mentioning just how startling the lack of creativity is here. There is nothing remotely memorable about any of the murder set-pieces, and since nothing else surrounding them tries to do anything either, I just can’t fathom what anyone might have seen in this exercise worth doing. Normally I would be incensed by the opening note that the film is “Based on True Events” but I’ve long since given up on railing against this trend in modern horror movies, still I do call BS, as the only way a movie this generic could possibly be based on a true story is if the producers are trying to say its based on literally any time anyone has ever been murdered, or just the general concept of murder itself.

In the end, I guess I just wonder if the central conceit of the original film was ever substantial enough to sustain a sequel even if the best possible creative minds were behind it. There are only so many motionless creepy masks you can throw out at us before the image just gets boring without another gimmick to go along with it, and it feels like the Purge franchise has taken all the good ones in the last decade anyway, while adding on a political angle to keep the creepy killer thing fresh enough across at least four movies and a proposed TV show.And the reveal that these killers have no real ideology or agenda beyond random murder and that their specific identities are irrelevant is carried over to this film, but there are several moments when the prospect of pulling off their masks and revealing their true faces is treated like a suspenseful cathartic release, when the whole point is that they’re nobodies and there is no mystery attached to who they are. The Strangers: Prey At Night is as empty and meaningless as its antagonists, the reveal behind the mask being exactly as uninspired as it should be and as you would expect, but not in a meta-textual or thematic way that might have been satisfying, because the only themes we get are crappy 80’s songs. You probably skipped this when it came out, and you were right in doing so. 

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