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Review: 'The Strangers: Prey at Night' keeps it simple, stupid ... literally

| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 10:48 a.m.

A follow-up to the 2008 cult horror hit "The Strangers," "The Strangers: Prey at Night" isn't really a sequel, at least not in the generally accepted sense of the word. Rather than advancing the story — about a couple who is terrorized by three masked assailants wielding knives and an ax — "Prey at Night" merely repeats that winning formula, swapping out the first film's victims, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, for two new characters.

"Characters" is such a strong word.

Teenage Luke (Lewis Pullman) and his younger sister, Kinsey (Bailee Madison), aren't so much people as pawns, fresh meat that just keeps getting pushed around an increasingly blood-soaked chessboard — here, an empty, dimly lit trailer park, just off the exit for Godforsaken Nowhere.

During a stopover with their parents on the way to drop Kinsey off at boarding school, they're stalked by the same trio of theatrical psychopaths we met 10 years ago: two young women in Halloween masks, known as Dollface and Pinup Girl (Emma Bellomy and Lea Enslin, respectively), and a man (Damian Maffei) with a burlap sack over his head, emblazoned with a crude, scarecrow face. (He's identified in the credits, less poetically, as the Man in the Mask.)

Mom and Dad, played by Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson, get dispatched fairly quickly, along with some vague, never-specified backstory about Kinsey's troubled past.

Keep it simple, stupid

You've got to give credit to Bryan Bertino, who wrote and directed the first film on a shoestring budget of $9 million, and who co-wrote this one (with Ben Ketai) before handing the reins to director Johannes Roberts ("47 Meters Down"). At least he sticks to the filmmaking mantra that has guided so many horror auteurs before him: Keep it simple, stupid. You won't get any bells and whistles here.

In this case, unfortunately, Roberts has opted to keep it simple and stupid, eschewing recognizable human behavior for set pieces that look good but make no rational sense. One lurid, extended sequence takes place in and around a neon-lit swimming pool, where the Man in the Mask goes after Luke, ultimately injuring him, amid an expanding plume of blood, in the aquamarine water.

Of course, all that beautiful, if garish, cinematography would have been for naught if Luke had held on to the gun he found a few moments earlier, instead of tossing it away, inexplicably.

Low-quality knockoff

Speaking of inexplicable, that attack is set to the song "Total Eclipse of the Heart," by Bonnie Tyler, which blares from the park's PA system, in an attempt at — I don't know, irony? An homage to the golden age of cheese-ball slasher movies?

Other soundtrack offerings include such 1980s power ballads as "Kids in America" by Kim Wilde and Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All." Talk about scary.

Despite such flashes of originality, the whole thing has the air of a cynical, low-quality knockoff of something that wasn't very good to begin with. In the first film, when Tyler's character confronts Dollface, asking her why she's doing this, the answer comes back, jaded and unsettling: "Because you were home."

In "Prey at Night," when Kinsey asks the same question, Dollface's response betrays not only her own apathy, but the film's profound laziness: "Why not?"

Michael O'Sullivan is a Washington Post writer.

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