2006’s The Strangers is one of my favourite horror films, so when I found out there was a sequel (over ten years later, no less) I kind of hovered around it apprehensively a while before taking the dive. It’s actually a solid gem, and in some ways better than the first film although quite different in style and tone. The first saw on-the-rocks couple Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman stalked at their remote cabin, it was hushed, shadowy, it employed silence, creaky doors, an eerie record turntable and other low key elements to terrify and create atmosphere, it was quite sombre and muted. The Strangers: Prey At Night couldn’t be louder and prouder, dipped in the newly popular 80’s synth aesthetic, gory as all hell, celebratory in its bloody, neon, frenzied, unabashed spectacle and I love the direction they took with it. There’s an entire family this time, mom and dad (Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks) and bro & sis (Lewis Pullman and Bailee Madison) on a family vacation at a suspiciously deserted mobile home resort. The trip is meant to restore bonds and heal tension within their family unit, but such is not in the cards, as we soon see the three unmistakable, spooky serial killers from the first film descend on their location, stalk, torment and try to kill them. The casting is great here, Henderson I haven’t seen in a while and has horror roots from The Ring, I’ve always enjoyed his work. Hendricks is on a decade long hot streak and does a fine job. My favourite was Bailee Madison as the troubled teenage daughter though, she has excellent range and goes from high strung and vulnerable to killer instinct survivalist with emotional clarity and vicious resilience. The filmmakers obviously got on-board this 80’s nostalgia train and I just love how it’s coming back, there’s a beautiful electronic score and some choice soundtrack picks including Kids In America, Night Moves, Cambodia and a thundering climactic riff on Total Eclipse Of The Heart set your one of the most hectic, elaborate and excitingly stages finales anyone could dream up. If you’ve seen The Strangers you’ll remember how bleak, smothered in darkness, nihilistic and bitter that one was in spirit, and the feeling the ending leaves you with. Prey At Night strives to be the antithesis to that in terms of tone, feeling and outcome. There’s a striking set piece at the resort’s pool lit by fluorescent palm trees that is showcase horror and one of my favourite sequences in the genre of late. If the first film was the oppressive witching hour of night, this is the first neon rays of dawn, a spectacularly violent, cathartic, rip-snortin confrontation between three despicable sickos and one tough cookie teen that just won’t let them walk all over her. Surpasses the original in my book, and one of the best horror films I’ve seen in quite sometime.
Although not quite the dense, delicious narrative feast I envisioned based on marketing, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is an impressively mounted period thriller with gorgeous late 60’s production design, fantastic performances from a variety of players and a hard boiled, ultra violent storyline loaded with equal helpings of melodrama and pulp. Somewhere along the Nevada/California state-line lies the ornate El Royale, a retro pop funhouse with a giant chandelier, soda jerk sensibilities and and a jukebox that doesn’t quit. The rooms in California cost an extra dollar a night than those in Nevada because of course they do. A handful of strangers show up one fateful day in 1969, the motives, pasts and true temperaments of which are slowly revealed throughout the rainy night via an elliptical tale that weaves forward, backwards and flows past many perspectives and angles to show what is actually happening. Jeff Bridges is the salty preacher with memory issues, Jon Hamm the chatterbox salesman who moonlights as a clandestine federal agent, Lewis Pullman the dodgy hotel clerk, Dakota Johnson and a scary Cailee Spaeny two hippie sisters on the run and Cynthia Erivo in the film’s best and most human performance as a fledgeling singer just trying to survive the crazy night. Alliances shift, flashbacks sometime prove reliable and sometimes not, people are killed graphically, the rain pours down, intentions are laid bare and that jukebox keeps on keeping on. The soundtrack they’ve amassed is something else here, an old time collection of Mo town, sun n’ surf and heartfelt solos by Erivo that give the film a vibrant personality. And yes, Chris Hemsworth is in it too, playing a volatile, Manson-esque cult leader with a short temper, long hair and a button down shirt that conveniently never gets buttoned down (anything to fill those seats). The character is a bit much and sort of takes over the wheel in the third act, but Chris is too young to pull something that magnetic off as well as others could and I couldn’t help feeling like he was miscast. The film sort of suffers from what I call Hateful Eight syndrome a bit; when you have an Agatha Christie sort of tale to tell, the setup is always a tantalizing mystery that, once unravelled, has to feel worth the build and earn its revelations along the way. The payoff here is better than Hateful Eight and the film overall is stronger too, but I felt just a smidge underwhelmed once everything was laid bare and the wrap up rolled around. Nevertheless, this is a surefire piece of thriller entertainment with many elements that work terrifically, namely acting, dialogue and production design. Erivo seems to have come out of nowhere and also impressed me in Widows earlier this year, she grounds the film in reality and serves as the moral compass of sorts in this miasma of reprehensible human behaviour, I hope to see more of her and hear more of that singing voice in the future. Spaeny too was excellent, playing a pitch perfect acolyte with an unbalanced edge and a dead eyed stare that was truly chilling and definitely reminiscent of what I’d imagine a freaky ass flower power cult chick would have come across as back then. A fine piece of entertainment that wasn’t as deeply plotted as it could have been, but blasts by with admirable energy and streamlined ambition.