A sequel to 2008’s The Strangers (a film that I was completely unaware of going in), Prey at Night sees a family of four taking a road trip to a mobile home park so that they can spend some time together before daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) goes off to boarding school. But after a mysterious girl starts knocking at their door, the family quickly find themselves being terrorized by a trio of masked killers.
To start off positively, Prey at Night gets off to a promising start as the characters appear to be pretty decent and there’s clearly an attempt to introduce some emotional stakes as we learn of the central conflict between Kinsey and the rest of her family, of her resentment of being sent away to school. The opening scenes are shot competently, creating mood and atmosphere quite well, and the film immediately announces itself as an homage to 80s horror films by giving the title a distinctive 80s font and letting us hear Adrian Johnston’s score, which sounds like something from a John Carpenter film, as well as some good era-specific tracks from the likes of Kim Wilde and Bonnie Tyler (apparently the main killer in this film can’t perform unless there’s an 80s tune in the background – his only defining characteristic).
Unfortunately, things slowly go downhill after about ten minutes because after the solid opening, Prey at Night gradually gets far less interesting and ends up being derivative, ridiculous and laughably absurd.
The biggest problem with the film is its poor script and story, which is written by Bryan Bertino (who wrote and directed the first film) and Ben Ketai. Oh, where to start? One of the problems is that the story is wholly unoriginal and lifeless, burdened with inescapable plot holes and nonsensical moments, ultimately boiling down to a tale of “people being attacked by mask wearing, sharp object wielding psychos” and it’s annoying and insulting that there’s no satisfying explanation given, that the boring central villains have absolutely no reason for doing what they do, their entire motivations summed up in two incredibly anti-climactic words towards the end. Characters constantly ask “why are they doing this to us?” but believe me, NO-ONE in the cast and crew clearly has any idea.
There’s also no denying how derivative and cliched the film is, giving us so many horror tropes that we’ve seen before but the thing is, all this could’ve worked in the film’s favour – it could have been a clear homage to 80s slasher films with a knowing sense of self-deprication and witty satire but Prey at Night takes itself far too seriously and its clumsy embrace of horror cliches comes across as tiresome and insulting. Because at this point in time, we’ve surely had enough of 80s horror homage and we yearn for more originality – reinvent the rulebook, don’t copy the past!
By the way, some of the film’s horror tropes include, but are not limited to: power cuts, disconnected phone lines, dripping taps, pointless jump scares, heavy breathing, creepy circus music, a random Jack-in-the-Box on the floor, an axe being sloooowly dragged along the ground, cars that won’t start, a creaky swing slowly moving in the fog, and the whole “you think the bad guy’s dead but, oh no wait, he isn’t!”
“Based on a True Story”? Yeah, I’m calling BS on that.
STILL on the subject of writing, the dialogue itself starts off uncertain and laboured at the beginning but then just gets plain bad as the protagonists go on to make increasingly questionable decisions, not done any justice by the sub-par performances; it may be hard to put into words but much of what the characters say is unintentionally ridiculous and laughable, including a painfully awkward “I’m proud of you”, heard during the film’s worst scene involving a car crash, one character announcing “I feel scared” (“You can’t have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”), and several instances of passing drivers encountering our dying protagonists in the road and saying “Are you alright?!” No, I think they’re pretty f$@#ing far from alright!!
But this film also commits the cardinal sin by having Luke say “I love you, Sis”. Well, at that point I was screaming at the screen in my head. NO! NO! AUTOMATIC FAIL! BAD WRITING AWARD!
Another huge problem is that there’s a generous amount of time spent trying to develop the characters in the beginning, attempting to give the film its depth but unfortunately, this all amounts to jack as it ultimately has no relevance to the story and is incompatible with the rest of the film, not exactly going hand in hand with the horror. There may have been some good intentions at its heart but all the forced touchy-feely stuff is laid on a bit too thick and only serves to incur eye-rolls from the audience. Right at the start, you know that the whole mother/daughter dilemma will either a) prove to be ultimately redundant or b) actually have some special significance by the end. Unfortunately, it’s the former and honesty, I could see no real way for the “family drama” to actually mean something in this film.
Prey at Night has a handful of performances (not unlike the far superior A Quiet Place) and they range from average to awful. Christina Hendricks is the big name star (though, as a fellow film fan has pointed out, she’s primarily in the film just to draw audiences in) and she performs well enough with the material, managing to keep her dignity as she navigates through both the family drama and horror. Elsewhere, Martin Henderson starts off well enough as the father, doing a fine job in the earlier scenes but proving himself to be completely out of his depth when the horror hits, giving an embarrassingly awkward performance in his final, horrible scene, and Lewis Pullman is a good sport as brother/son Luke, managing to keep most of his dignity intact as he struggles with the bad script but he’s clearly miscast in this film as he is too old – being unrealistically older than his sister and being too close to his father’s age (sometimes, you can’t tell them apart!) And the worst performance of the film is that of
young Katie Holmes Bailee Madison, who plays daughter Kinsey. Granted, she does well enough at the beginning (like everyone else) but she gets far more unbearable and annoying as the film delves further into horror; her screams, cries and wails are unconvincing and annoying and the film’s terrible dialogue doesn’t do her any favours as she shows herself to be wholly wrong for the part.
And at the helm of this misguided endeavour, Johannes Roberts’ direction is alright but many parts are too slow and meandering as he lets the camera linger on certain scenes for too long and his direction is also flawed since the film is not scary in the slightest, though the troublesome script probably played a huge part in that too.
To end on a “positive” note, although Prey at Night is a bad film, it wasn’t completely unbearable and it was surprisingly easy to sit through and wonder how it would all turn out. The film is unoriginal, lazy and completely pointless but it provides moments of unintentional absurdity so when you’ve finished watching, you may very well look back on it and giggle.
Oh, and right at the beginning, I took a guess as to who the last one standing would be I was right. That says it all, right there.