Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Johannes Roberts' The Strangers: Prey at Night

Cody checks out a long-awaited follow-up after spending a night on the set.

It has been almost exactly ten years since writer/director Bryan Bertino's home invasion slasher The Strangers was released, and now a follow-up to that film has finally made it into theatres. It wasn't supposed to take nearly this long. The Strangers was released on May 30, 2008, and Bertino had at least one draft of The Strangers 2 done by the start of April 2009. Unfortunately, production company issues kept the project in development hell for a decade, during which time directors Laurent Briet and Marcel Langenegger came and went, and writer Ben Ketai did a script polish.

The film now known as The Strangers: Prey at Night finally emerged from development hell in 2017 and was put on the fast track, with 47 Meters Down director Johannes Roberts signing on to bring the titular slashers back to the screen.

A fan of the original film, I had been ready to see a follow-up ever since I first saw The Strangers during its theatrical run, so I was very glad to hear that it was actually going to happen... And though I had never imagined that when it did finally get made I would be able to visit the set, that's exactly what happened back on June 28, 2017.

On assignment for, I travelled down to the Kentucky filming location, a 56 acre plot of land very near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. This land had been a residential area until the 1980s, when the airport bought it out and tore down the houses, leaving only the streets behind. The production of The Strangers: Prey at Night took that land over, bringing in trailer homes and vintage RVs to turn it into Gatlin Lake Getaway, the primary setting of the film, a woodsy vacation spot that's said to empty out after Labor Day. So, of course, the events of the film occur after Labor Day.

I have read a couple of the earlier drafts of the script by Bertino, before Ketai was brought on to do his polish, and the foundation of Bertino's story did make it into the finished film, there were just some details changed along the way. After opening with a scene set very soon after the events of the first film and written to allow The Strangers star Liv Tyler to return for a cameo (that scene did not survive the 10 year wait for the film to be made), the script was rooted in the time when it was written, in those early days of the recession. It followed a family - father Mike, mother Cindy, 17-year-old son Luke, and daughter Cindy, who was 10 in one draft and early teens with a cast-wrapped leg in another - as they lose their home. They'll be moving in with grandma, but before they hit the road they'll be spending one night at a friend's empty trailer in a trailer park that has also been hit hard by the recession and is now almost completely abandoned. And where those who stayed behind have already been killed by the strangers.

The film also follows that family, with Kinsey getting an age increase to get closer to her brother Luke's age. Filling the roles are Martin Henderson as Mike, Christina Hendricks as Cindy, Lewis Pullman as Luke, and Bailee Madison as Kinsey. Ketai's revision drops the recession connection and puts the family on the road to dropping the troubled, rebellious Kinsey off at boarding school. While the first movie had character drama revolving around a rejected proposal, this one has character drama revolving around the decision to send Kinsey away. That replaces the recession woes, although there is still reference to some financial troubles - the family had to cancel cable to afford the boarding school tuition.

The family's Uncle Marvin and Aunt Cheryl are the rare people - judging by the film, the only people - who actually stay at Gatlin Lake year-round, so the family stops by the trailer-filled resort to spend the night. The place is deserted, as expected, but Marvin and Cheryl aren't even around... That's because they were killed by the strangers in the opening scene.

Soon enough, the mask-wearing trio of killers (Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask) are closing in on the family, making way for the extended game of cat and mouse the audience has come to see.

The revisions done to the script were a mixed bag, although some of them certainly make sense, like making Kinsey an older teen. That's easier than having a 10 year old running around on set, and easier than asking a 10 year old to act through this sort of material. The financial trouble probably could have still made the transition to the screen, and could have made for some higher quality interactions between the family. While the actors do well with what they have to work with, and Hendricks and Madison have strong scenes with each other early on, a family losing everything is more engaging than a teen girl being a pain in the ass. I also could have done without the moment of Mike being baffled by the word "queef".

The build-up to the attack on the family is improved from what was originally on the page with a callback to the first film in the form of Dollface knocking on the door of the trailer they're staying in to ask, "Is Tamara home?"

Once the action kicks in, there are some extremely frustrating moments in which a few of the characters take passivity to a whole new level. If you're a viewer who gets annoyed when people in movies don't put their all into fighting off their attackers in a horror movie, you'll be screaming at the screen during The Strangers: Prey at Night. There are times when characters basically give themselves up and hand over their lives to the killers. One is trying to make sure Kinsey is safe when they're attacked, so they put no effort into fighting. But you know what would go even further toward making sure Kinsey is safe? If you would turn around and beat the hell out of the person who's about to stab you! Another has their bottom half immobilized, but either forget they still have use of their arms to try to defend themselves with, or a shot explaining why their arms can't move went by with me noticing. And the moment with a family member holding one of the strangers at gunpoint: Wow.

That aside, the actual action beats are a major improvement over what was in Bertino's script; there is some extremely cool stuff in the second half of this movie, which made it easier for me to roll with some of the more confounding moments. Sure, I would have liked it if the scripted massacre of seven teenagers had been filmed, but I'll trade that for the sequence set in and around a neon-lit swimming pool, or for the Christine-inspired sequence in which Kinsey is chased by a pickup truck engulfed in flames.

That swimming pool sequence looks incredible, was shot in a very impressive way, and builds up to a moment that was stunning in the way it evokes a feeling of desperation and soul-crushing hopelessness. There are some questionable things in The Strangers: Prey at Night, but there are some amazing things peppered in there as well, and the swimming pool sequence is the standout in that regard.

These movies are set in modern times, the characters have cell phones, but they have a timeless feeling to them anyway. That's a feeling production designer Freddy Waff was aiming to capture through the fact that all of the mobile homes and RVs he got to fill Gatlin Lake with are from the 1970s and '80s. In post-production, Roberts made it quite clear that he wanted to make the film a throwback to a very specific time - there is a strong element of '80s nostalgia in this movie. It starts right from the moment the movie begins, with composer Adrian Johnston making some discordant synth additions to Kim Wilde's 1981 song "Kids in America". The main title sequence uses the font you'll recognize from John Carpenter's films, while the title itself has its own awesome throwback design.

The first movie had a great use of Merle Haggard's 1968 song "Mama Tried", and this one is full of '80s songs: Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" (1983), Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All" (1983), Kim Wilde's "Cambodia" (1982), Mental As Anything's "Live It Up" (1985), etc. The strangers love to have tunes playing while they do their killing.

'80s nostalgia always puts a smile on my face, and I loved the examples of it within this film.

Watching the movie after spending time on its set, seeing things I had watched being filmed projected on the big screen, seeing the characters wield weapons I had my hands on, was a pretty cool experience, and I was glad to see that the movie turned out to be a good one, even if it does have plenty of things you can pick at. It's a fun time even when the characters threaten to drive you nuts.

My set visit report has been posted on in two parts. Part One covers the location itself and what I saw being filmed, while Part Two consists of the interviews conducted with Johannes Roberts, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, and stunt coordinator Cal Johnson.

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