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.
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.
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!