‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ Might Be Better Than ‘The Strangers’

The Strangers: Prey at Night

The Strangers was successful because it targeted a common fear with patience and verve. Bryan Bertino’s original was as stripped-down as a horror film could come. Bertino had the recourse to pull from horror iconography—scary masks, a creepy song on the record player during key scenes—while simultaneously resisting the demands of the genre. Everything from the tagline—“We tell ourselves we have nothing to fear. But sometimes we’re wrong”—to Dollface’s infamous remark, “Because you were home,” was antithetical to what the horror genre had become. Michael Myers needed a sister. When a Stranger Calls and its sequel, both thematically similar to The Strangers, psychoanalyzed their respective stalkers. In The Strangers, there is no answer. It’s happening because the world is a cruel, random, violent place. 

There was efficacy in the approach, accounting for The Strangers’ meteoric rise from a 2008 sleeper hit to a full-borne phenomenon. There’s been one sequel, and recently, a trailer dropped for the first in a planned trilogy of prequel films. Its popularity has eclipsed genre constraints. Everyone you know has heard of The Strangers, and they likely think it’s one of the scariest movies ever made. And it is. For the first act.


I think The Strangers does a lot well, and it’s an integral part of horror history. It deserves its legacy even if, for me, it functions better as an urban legend than it does as a movie. The impression it delicately crafts for its runtime is indelibly scary, but narratively, it falls apart soon after it’s exhausted its restraint. Liv Tyler’s Kristen, at the start, is left home alone at a rural summer home when boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman) leaves to buy some cigarettes. She’s recently rejected a marriage proposal, and the interpersonal strain is suffocating before the titular strangers even arrive.

For a protracted beat, Bertino is operationally, and cinematically unmatched. Plenty of horror films have tried to do what Bertino does here—never has it been so successful. Kristen wanders around the home as strangers appear in and out of frame, including the now iconic shot of her standing alone in the kitchen as Kip Weeks’ Man in the Mask manifests out of the shadows in the doorway. Things go missing, Kristen realizes she’s not alone, and she desperately tries to barricade herself inside (unaware that they’ve already made it in). It’s perfect.

Genuinely. It is unequivocally one of the scariest horror sequences of all time, and Bertino deserves all the praise he gets. It wasn’t a fluke, either. He accomplished the same thing a decade later with The Dark and the Wicked, a terrifying haunted house movie that is as austerely accomplished as his debut.

From Home Invasion To Slasher

It’s after that beat, however, that James returns home and The Strangers has to start being a standard horror movie again. The subsequent stalk-and-slash sequences are regularly contrived, with both James and Kristen acting not as two young adults being menaced, but instead as names on a script behaving in accordance with whatever is going to get them from one scene to another. The Strangers themselves morph from unknown assailants to slasher killers, appearing and disappearing at random, not tethered to any kind of proximal or geographic reality. At the start, it felt like it could really happen. By the end, it was lo-fi Friday the 13th. A good time at the movies, but very clearly, very explicitly, just a movie.

And Then There Was The Strangers: Prey at Night

Conversely, the long-gestating sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night, never pantomimes as anything other than just a movie. The argument I’m about to make is singular to me, and that’s important to note, but from my perspective, I enjoy The Strangers: Prey at Night more than the original. There’s a caveat there, namely that The Strangers is categorically the better movie. There’s no arguing otherwise. But as a movie, I enjoy The Strangers: Prey at Night because it is just a movie.

Johannes Roberts’ sequel is all-in on the homage. The title sequence appears as Adrian Johnston’s theme kicks in, a conspicuous rip on John Carpenter’s The Fog. Roberts, in conventional 80s fashion, opts for bigger and bolder, unabashedly pushing reality as far as it’s willing to bend from the outset. Non-descript tension sketches out the family of four, Cindy (Christina Hendricks), Mike (Martin Henderson), Kinsey (Bailee Madison), and Luke (Lewis Pullman) as they park their van at an abandoned trailer park for some time together before Kinsey is shipped off to boarding school.

Homage And Going Bigger

While there had only been one previous The Strangers movie before, Roberts gestures like Wes Craven in Scream 2, metatextually teasing the audience with what they already know. Knocks on the door. Faceless assailants asking for Tamara. Then, he simply tears through it, crafting incredulous set piece after incredulous set piece with grisly aplomb. The standout, of course, is Luke’s pool battle with The Man in the Mask, this time played by Damian Maffei.

The final act is spectacle over logic, and more than the original, I respect Roberts for leaning into the excess of his progenitors. There are riffs on Christine, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and even Halloween, all set to a delicious diegetic soundtrack of 1980s top hits. Why is every radio station set to the same channel? Doesn’t matter. Kinsey runs down killers as Air Supply bleeds in over the action. That’s enough for me.

My sensibilities, a steady diet of One Dark Night, The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Initiation, and Body Count, means I’m predisposed to loving The Strangers: Prey at Night. And I do. To concede again, Bertino’s original is the better movie, but for my money, I’d much rather see these masked goons run rampant in a trailer park, logic—and discretion—be damned.



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter