Johannes Roberts’ The Strangers: Prey at Night follows a family of four who become human targets in a vicious game of cat and mouse, stalked by a trio of masked killers while staying overnight in an abandoned mobile home community. And the key question reverberates through our consciousness, “Is Tamara home?” A mantra of death, a lullaby of absolute slasher carnage to foreshadow the deaths to come. The blades. The revving engine. The impersonal. The separation of a family and all that erupts within this beautiful slasher sequel to Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers.
As for Tamara… She’s definitely not home. But maybe that never mattered anyway.
The Strangers: Prey at Night – Trailer
Cast to the obscurity of the unknown dark. Of night descending. And darkness seeping darker. Darkness always obscures the blossoming of life. It precludes inevitable cinematic death. We’ll light your face as we watch you fade. The darkness is where horror reigns in its delivery.
Vicarious voyeurs, we revel in characters being caught in an unfamiliar place, stalked and framed full-body by the camera’s slow zoom. And this tight slasher taps so well into that fear of the hunt, while simultaneously stylizing the kills and the mounting surround of shadows swelling out from the darkness.
What it means to say goodbye to your mother. What it means to tell your son that you’re proud of him. Shut your eyes. Tightly shut. Alert. Focus… And Run, dear. Run to the light.
A frugal violence. There is never a moment where I feel like this horror is going off the rails of its purpose, for the rails are parallel to the fantasy world that Roberts operates from in the delivery itself: the slow angle forward on a body in a doorway, the slats of a window, the scrawled “hello” on the window, the whimpering dog, the corpse propped in a chair, the wall being plowed in by the truck, a mailbox at night, the Kentucky mist drifting over a dim streetlamp, the kitsch of the pool and its neon lights, the blaring soundtrack and the descent into water.
The Eve of Change, the Eve of Doom
And the pumping heart of this horror? Well, of course, empathy is at stake. The dissembling of familial love. It’s not just the murders themselves, but the fact that we follow a flawed family with all their problems and hopes spread open on the table. Like the remnants of someone’s last meal being Chinese take-out. And, the daughter has behavioral issues and is being hauled off to boarding school, while the son gets to remain home and play ball in the park with his friends Maybe he knows what’s best for her… . The parents aren’t rich. They have obviously weighed all their life options to make this difficult choice to give their daughter a better life, one that the mother never had.
And the horror begins on the eve of that change… the unfolding narrative becomes the tipping point of a tremendous energy, where the family’s life will shift to a better place, where they’ll look back at the choice they made and the wonderfully mannered woman that their daughter will one day become. But… this “tipping point of tremendous energy” doesn’t arrive in the form that the family envisioned. What does occur is the possibility of the manifestation of evil to interject its way into the veins of this family’s reality. And create a new reality. One of horror.
Hello?… Is Tamara Home?
Is the door locked? Have you secured the windows? Is someone lurking outside (always in the shadows, never in the light)? Or, is there a tapping at the window? Who slashed the tires? Why is there blood on the doorknob? Where’s Jessie and Sally and Dave and Tim? Is Tamara home? Why is the dog whimpering? What does an encounter with real evil feel like? Is that the rumble of a truck’s engine? It’s coming closer… don’t stare into the high beams. Never become entranced by a truck on a country road at night.
The family has just settled into what they believe is their uncle’s trailer home in the middle of a labyrinthine mobile home community. It’s the darkest of night. A knock at the door. Someone’s unscrewed the porch light. A shadowed girl asks, “Is Tamara home?” And for the audience, we know exactly what that summoning means. That question of Fate. We’ve heard it before in the original film. It’s a calling out from the Void, a mark of unholy things to come. Or, perhaps it’s a prayer for the deranged trio, a kind of death-song for those who hear it’s calling.
Your Synth Nightmare
And what makes the killers more devious and unhinged is their penchant for eighties synth pop. Not in whether we simply like or dislike the genre/tone of the music, but in the airy joy and wistful emotion tha tthe music conjures. The music is inappropriate to the deaths. This, for me, makes it all the more poignant.
Throughout the film, an assemblage of eighties synth-driven songs creep up from the night-ether and sing their familiar tunes. In one startling scene where the dad sits impaled in the driver’s seat of a car, the “bag head” killer sits next to him and calmly turns on the car stereo, tuning the dial to a joyful pop song from a bygone era. For a moment, the two sit and share in the silence before the father is slaughtered. The music acts as a compliment to the kill and this indulgence in this particular form of music tells us just how warped these killers are — or can be.
Hello? Hello?… Is Tamara Home…?
And why do these strangers “prey at night?” We don’t know their true motivations in the context of their universe. It’s this unknown reason that drives my interest in this sequel. I love the idea that the audience is never privy to the motivations or histories of these killers. We are presented with three strangers. Three anomalies. And it’s the random openness of who they could be, and how they don’t reveal themselves to us, that strikes a deep chord of horror inside me. The woman at the supermarket. The man following you at night. You pull up beside a seemingly innocent car, both waiting your turn at the traffic light. You never know the person in the car. The idea of strangers being at the core of this horror is a thrilling experience that drives this film onward to its stunning conclusion of rebirth and healing.
And twisted metal… And fire.
Burned Back to Life
For, in the end, there are flames (of course), and gunshots and slit throats, and slain family members, and the enduring strength of saving a loved one. But there’s a final knock at door as if to tell us that we have stepped firmly into the realm of an otherworldly slasher. There’s no way that a normal human could rise from the dead (i.e. I’m referring to the “bag headed” killer’s demise).
But we are in firm horror territory, for remember, we never know exactly who these strangers are. I’m not saying that they are in any way “supernatural,” but don’t all real “pure evil” slashers possess something extraordinary, something that elevates them above the confines of their human prey? I think it’s safe to say that we will be gifted by a third installment in this franchise, and at that time, we will truly understand the power inherent in the form of bag head’s cultish wonder. What secrets he possesses. What has driven him to have his counterparts ask the question, “Is Tamara home?”
For more cinematic art analysis, read our recent article on Panos Cosmatos’ brilliant film MANDY.