“Why are you doing this?” cries Kinsey (Bailee Madison), a teen-delinquent Wednesday Addams in an off-the-shoulder Ramones T-shirt, as she stares into the face of the killer she has just unmasked. The assailant, who appears to be not much older than Kinsey, looks right back at her and summons her best sickie-harpy grin as she says, “Why not?”
As motivations for homicidal maniacs go, this one carries a bit of Brando (“Whaddya got?”) spiced with a pinch of Manson. And the audience for “The Strangers: Prey at Night” may identify with the sentiment. Why go to a hideously obvious slasher movie, with no tricks up its sleeve beyond its use of songs like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” to accompany images of operatic slaughter? (At times, the films feels like it could be “Friday the 13th” scored to Andy Cohen’s iPod.) Why sit through a series of blade-twisting slaughters as routine as they are grisly? Why not?
Ten years ago, “The Strangers” offered what looked, for a while, like a slightly more original dose of the same mayhem. The killers, in their plastic cherub masks, were spooky specters emerging from the night, and that lent the opening section of the movie a disquieting imitation-J-horror vibe that it all too quickly abandoned.
That, however, was five years before “The Purge” (2013) figured out how to turn slasher anarchy into a kind of rebel posture. “Prey at Night” is a post-“Purge” sequel. Technically, it has nothing at all to do with that series, but its masked killers now play like “Purge” offshoots — vengeful devil dolls in a world gone to hell. This movie, though, is so programmed it could be a video game. There’s no real terror or dread in it, just the same old meat-puppet gore and cattle-prod scares served up with a kind of ritualized self-satisfaction.
For a movie this formulaic, “Prey at Night” has an awfully slow build-up. The entire opening half hour is devoted to the drama of Kinsey facing off against her parents (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) and older brother (Lewis Pullman) during the weekend they pile into the car to haul Kinsey off to boarding school. Her sarcastic, chain-smoking resentment (though she doesn’t inhale), like her folks’ guilt and despair over what a screw-up their darling daughter turned out to be, amounts to a protracted red herring, as the family heads up to Gatlin Lake, a trailer park full of rolling hills and orangey street lamps. A figure known as Uncle Marvin has invited them to camp there for the weekend, but the place is otherwise abandoned — and Marvin, before long, turns out to be a bloody mangled corpse hidden under a sheet.
He’s the first victim of the film’s crew of killers, referred to in the credits as Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin), and Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei). The first two look like female variations on the masked harlequin of “V for Vendetta”; the latter is the film’s Leatherface mascot — he wears an executioner’s hood of burlap and is given to “enigmatic” silences, though they feel so hollow I’m tempted to say there’s such a thing as inexpressive masked-psycho-killer acting, and this is a prime example of it.
Essentially, “Prey at Night” is “Friday the 13th” with four victims and three Jasons. There’s nothing very clever about the staging, and the whole killers-in-ironic-smiling-masks thing has been done so often that it has lost just about all its nightmare creep value. There’s one good sequence in “Prey at Night”: Silent Leatherface in Burlap tries to murder Kinsey’s brother in a swimming pool, and the director, Johannes Roberts, shoots the works in an effective way, the blood spreading through the water, the camera cutting to below the water’s surface, then back up and down again, with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in sync, popping from the soundtrack foreground to the muffled background. It’s the one honestly jolting scene in the movie.
The rest of “Prey at Night” is shameless in its bluntly misanthropic family-of-lambs-to-the-slaughter violence, its blithe depravity that’s more fetishized than felt. It doesn’t take much, though — as it didn’t in the ’80s — to create a one-weekend horror hit. All that’s needed is a budget for masks, and voilà! You’ve turned ciphers into monsters.