“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
If you’re a diehard horror fan, you were probably pleasantly surprised when you sat down to watch The Strangers: Prey at Night, the decade-later sequel to Bryan Bertino’s potent little 2008 shocker, and discovered that it was a full-barreled homage to John Carpenter and synth-drizzled 80’s cinema. But once you scratch past the surface, it makes perfect sense why the film digs up the horror tropes of yesteryear.
You see, the movie is inherently about the war between two generations that has been playing out in the media over the past couple years. You’re probably familiar with the cavalcade of articles about millennials killing everything from the napkin industry to the lottery to Applebee’s. It always happens this way: Older generations are frightened by the shifting tastes and perspectives of new generations and the way a world shaped by them is going to look. It happened with the introduction of video games, rock ‘n roll, and even novels way back in the day.
Now the Internet age has made things especially frightening and unrecognizable. Kids and teens now have access to the broadest spectrum of information in human history, and their attempts to carve out their own identities alongside this rapid increase in social and political awareness have received a lot of pushback from the parents and authority figures in their lives.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is essentially about transposing that generational battle onto a grand, bloody canvas. On the micro scale, there’s the literal reason our family foursome is facing the evil trio of murders: their young daughter Kinsey has “behavioral issues” that frighten her parents, who just don’t understand, so they are sending her off to a boarding school. The trailer park where they’re staying on the way to drop her off becomes the site of their own gruesome demise. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the idea, but what they end up with is “out of time,” as The Strangers rip and slash their way through their faux domestic tranquility.
Which brings us to the macro side of things: The Strangers, along with being a literal dredging up of the past (these particular villains haven’t been onscreen for ten years – time sure flies, doesn’t it?), bring a whole horde of classic horror tropes and stylistic elements with them, from Adrian Johnston’s glorious synthwave score to the neon-splashed coloring to the Texas Chainsaw infused finale. In fact, the lead Baghead villain finds it impossible to kill without an 80’s track blaring on his truck’s stereo. He’s basically Baby Driver’s evil twin. All these elements of older horror films are the exact things being used to torture and terrify the teens in this trailer park.
In two entirely different contexts, the older generation is seeking to hold these kids back and prevent them from being independent, especially Kinsey, who finds herself a particular target for their torment.
But just as past generations always eventually surrender and give way to the new, the siblings in Prey at Night triumph over their attackers. The senseless, random violence that claimed the lives of the victims in the original Strangers is no match for this duo of smarter, more capable protagonists. They are able to unmask, unsettle, and eventually destroy The Strangers without the help of any adult.
It’s no coincidence that Kinsey uses the very symbol of her teen rebellion (a cigarette lighter she uses as a performative way to show just how punk she is) to escape certain death, by igniting a puddle of gasoline under the lead Stranger. The knife-wielding antagonists eventually go the way of Applebee’s thanks to two kids who strove to be more than their now-dead parents and succeeded, though certainly not in a manner any of them could have ever predicted.
Also, if you think about it, The Strangers: Prey at Night is in and of itself a child. It was born from the original film, but it feels completely different from its predecessor. It sees the plot and tone of that film and strikes off in its own new direction. Thus, the generational war plays out on the biggest scale possible for this universe: the very existence of the movie itself.
This constant battle between old and new has an inevitable conclusion, and the people who made The Strangers know it. This is a film for a new generation about a new generation, and the infinitely more connected kids we’re seeing these days are capable of a previously unimaginable strength and solidarity. That’s reflected in the less downbeat ending here, which shows that the new generation has a chance in battling the senseless violence and grim patterns of their parents.
With more understanding and self-actualization, they’re going to create a brand new world that would be unrecognizable to previous generations, though hopefully one that hasn’t forgotten just how awesome Carpenterian synthwave music is.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror reviews with a new sub-genre every month!