The Strangers: Prey at Night – Review

The American stalk and slash film was the scourge of the 1980s. Emboldened by the success in the 1970s of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween, a template was established – then unpicked in Wes Craven’s Scream quartet – of a masked attacker menacing a community. The die was cast with the Friday the 13th series featuring a vengeful Jason Vorhees, wearing a hockey mask. The series even branched out into 3D, though not as we know it.

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The 2008 film, The Strangers, starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman tripled the masked threat, with a young couple threatened by three masked intruders. Its first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino turned a $9 million movie into a $82 million gross. Ten years on, Bertino has returned to the scene of the crime, ceding directing duties to Johannes Roberts (Storage 24, The Other side of the Door, 47 Metres Down) but concocting a script with Ben Ketai.

Loosely based like its predecessor on the 1981 unsolved murder of the Keddie family at a camp site, it deals with a family in crisis. Kinsey (Bailee Madison) has committed an unspecified misdemeanour with her school friends and for this she is driven by her parents (Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson) to a private school, a sacrifice that irks her brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) whose love of baseball sets him up for integration.

On the way, they stop off at a holiday park owned by Kinsey’s uncle. He is nowhere in sight. A message written in a child’s scrawl says ‘see you tomorrow’. The cabin looks recently occupied – there’s even Chinese food in the fridge. ‘Yum,’ says Pop. Then a young woman, her face masked by a shadow, asks if (muffled name) is there. ‘Sorry, wrong cabin,’ says Mom. She returns, and comes back again whilst Luke and his father are out having discovered the desiccated remains of Kinsey’s uncle and aunt. On third appearance she is wearing a mask that resembles a doll and bears a carving knife. Mask girl – or ‘Dollface’ as she is listed in the credits – is not alone; she is joined by two other silent intruders, sack head wielding an axe – truly a sad sack kind of guy – and ‘Pin Up Girl’ threatening with an awl, a small pointed tool used for piercing holes – she’s ‘awl or nothing’.

It is not just Wes Craven who took apart the conventions of the stalk and slash film – it is hard watching The Strangers: Prey at Night not to think of the 2014 Saturday Night Live Wes Anderson parody, ‘The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders’:

You keep expecting Tilda Swinton to turn up as Social Services. The order of senseless killing is generic, because fundamentally teenagers want to watch other teenagers fight back, even though it is quite hard to shoot a masked assailant after she has dropped her knife. ‘Give me the gun,’ squeals Kinsey.

The film deliberately pays homage to the 1980s in a way that is frankly tired, especially if you were there (ahem). The credits ape the type face of David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and the electronic soundtrack is sub-John Carpenter. The camp site is kind of retro and the characters have to resort to finding a landline.

There is a twist that I expected that doesn’t turn up. Suffice to say, that for our horror snowflake generation, the violence isn’t as graphic as the films of the 1980s, nor does the film exploit women in peril to a salacious degree – the swimming pool scene features two guys, with Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ blasted in the background – an audience highlight, if the Twitter response to the film is to be believed.

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The question you ask watching such films is: why am I here?  The other question is what do the psychopathic killers represent? Is it a fear of the power of youth to challenge Donald Trump? Or perhaps it is a rejection of the nuclear family as a normalising influence? The filmmakers intend to milk the situation for suspense without answering the question. ‘Why are you doing this?’ one of the attackers is asked, to which the response is, ‘why not?’

The Strangers: Prey at Night offers exactly what it shows on the poster art – minus the second knife. People look at an awl and think, ‘that’s not scary!’ It wastes the talent of its name cast (Hendricks, Henderson, the latter the star of many a Hal Hartley movie) and gives three young actors wearing masks no real showcase for their talent. (‘I was doing a lot of work under that hessian sack.’ ‘Yes, but we couldn’t see it.’) If you are looking for a really nail-biting suspense film, see A Quiet Place. Otherwise, you’ve been warned.

The Strangers: Prey at Night is out 4th May! 

East End Film Festival Highlights: Pili – Review

The issues that face the third world as well as the struggles of women, particularly women of colour, are subjects that are beginning to be explored in film. Instead of just the white saviour narratives, with ethnic secondary background players, central characters are becoming more diverse than ever before.

In a time of great change the film Pili is a welcome project. Written and directed by women as well as featuring a young Tanzanian in the central role. The film is a small but poignant story about a woman’s struggle to escape the hardships of her world.

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Pili is a woman living in rural Africa. In her poverty stricken village,  she has to take care of  her two young children alone, while also walking miles to her low paid farming job. She dreams of renting a small kiosk and providing a better future for her children. When a kiosk becomes available, she aims to gather the money that will secure her future. Along the way her health, well-being and strength are tested, but can she persevere?

The film is the feature debut from Leanne Welham, who had previously directed shorts, and the film is co-written with Sophie Harman. The project is indeed unique in that only one trained actor was used for the production, the remainder of the cast are Tanzanian locals.

The screenplay contains the stories of the female participants and 70% of the cast are HIV Positive. All the locations within the film are real, including the scenes set inside clinics aiding its authenticity.

Pili is first and foremost a simple story. It follows the trail of one women and the obstacles her everyday life faces. Through her we see a harsh criticism of third world conditions, healthcare, and the treatment of women. Slowly elements of her character and life are revealed and begin to unravel through circumstance. Pili comes up against the elders of her community, financial plight and even the vulnerability of womanhood. The film also beautifully covers the still taboo issue of HIV. In a continent torn apart by the virus, it is still a mark of shame and stigma which the characters must face head on.

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The cinematography of the piece is brilliantly done; wider scenic shots show the natural beauty of Tanzania while scenes inside Pili’s home emphasise her isolation. There is also a constant intimacy to Pili with close-ups on its leads face and eyes.

The film boosts an impressive cast, led by newcomer Bello Rashid as Pili. Her ground performance fuels the film and audiences will marvel at her resilience and sympathise with her struggles. Able to portray strength and vulnerability in equal measure, every scene reveals more about her and her character.

A heartfelt story of a woman in the cycle of poverty. Atmospheric and emotional, the film explores larger themes of destitution and vulnerability through a simple, intimate narrative. An impressive debut by director, screenwriter, and its phenomenal lead actress.

Find out more about East End Film Festival

The Wound (Inexba)- Review

More films than ever are tackling homosexuality in it’s rawest of form. Dramas such as Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country are looking to explore LGBT relationships and the results have been terrific. Most of these journey’s revolve around being true to yourself and falling in love with someone who opens that side of you up. What affects people in wishing to “come out” or be honest about their sexuality is the society around them, forcing many to hide their true identity with disastrous results.

The Wound is one such film.

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The debut from John Trengrove revolves around heated and secretive relationships deep in the mountains of South Africa. The movie sees several young men as they go through Ulwaluko, an Xhosa initiation ceremony in which young men are circumcised in order for them to enter manhood. Xolani is a caregiver to the young boys and serves as their mentor. He is excited about the annual trip because he is able to meet up with his secret love Vija and start their sexual and romantic relationship. When young city boy Kwanda is entered into Xolani’s care, the latter soon discovers that the former is also gay. Confronted by heritage nd their own sexuality, tensions soon mount between the three men.

Trengrove’s film is a brooding piece of cinema that quietly shakes masculinity, tradition, and sexuality. The power play of men within this story makes for an intriguing and utterly enriching character study. Painful procedures are placed on young men as elders force them to accept “the wound” in order to become a man. Kwanda, played superbly by Niza Jay Ncoyini, is an urbanite youth from  Johannesberg (affectionately called Joberg in the film) and his confident in who he is stripped bare. Under the wing of Xolani, his own becoming of homosexuality is off-set by those around him forcing him to become their version of a man. Though he isn’t the lead of this film, Kwanda is the catalyst for Xolani’s own journey as those attempt to bind youth with an ancient ideal and culture.

Anchored by strong performances, it is lead Nakhane Touré who is spectacular and  terrific as the meek character Xolani who comes alive in the shadows of a South African dusk, passionate in the angered and repressed arms of Vija. His face is a map of emotions that brood under hot summer nights. As Vija pushes him away only to pull him close, Xolani’s turbulent emotions  remind him of the conflict within him and Kwanda’s eagerness to be open adds a layer of resentment to the proceedings. Touré gifts us one of the best performances, in this case, and opens an interesting dialogue about a culture that’ll allow you to suffer and how repression can torture us all.

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A sun-soaked exploration of sexuality, you’ll urge the men to find comfort and solace within themselves and find love up on the mountain. The film presents questions on what it is to be a man as well as the pressures of family and culture. As Trengrove’s beautiful film unravels, it becomes more apparent that disaster is about to strike, culminating in one of the most poignant and haunting endings of the year.

The Wound is out in cinemas now! 
Read our interview with director and star!