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.
I remember the first time I saw Gore Verbinski’s The Ring back when I was eleven; broad daylight, started it at like ten in the morning, and got so scared I almost refused leave the house to go to the beach later with my family. Some films just stay with you if you see them at an impressionable age, and no matter how desensitized and thick skinned you get as your life goes on, you never lose at least a modicum of the raw terror you felt back then (don’t even get me started on The Grudge). Couple that with how beautifully dark the mood and aura of this film is thanks to nocturnally themed cinematography by Bojan Bazelli that turns Seattle and the surrounding rural areas into an eerie ghost playground, and you get something wholly memorable. By now the story is iconic; Naomi Watts plays a forlorn investigative journalist scoping out an urban legend in which people die seven days after they view a videotape apparently showing an experimental student film, which is tied to the backstory of the mysterious Samara (Daveigh Chase) a young girl with unholy supernatural tendencies. Edited together with a grainy VHS aesthetic contrasted by clearly lit, distinct nature and skyline shots, Verbinski gives the film an unmistakable visual element. co-starring talent is also provided by Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Rachael Bella, Amber Tamblyn, Jane Alexander, Adam Brody and a haunting Brian Cox as Samara’s disconcerted father. I’m not sure how the plot mechanics of the original Japanese film play out, but here they make a wise choice by never divulging exactly *what* is wrong with Samara, just that there is something severely off about her, and it’s that ambiguity combined with Chase’s eerie waif performance that make the character so memorable. Everyone shits their pants at the infamous television scene, but for me the ultimate scare resides in the almost unbearably suspenseful opening prologue, and the quick, blood freezing scene of the aftermath, I’ll never quite be the same after seeing a certain expression on a certain girl’s face. A dime-piece of a fright flick, a fine piece of filmmaking and a horror classic.
John Woo’s Windtalkers is a brutal, somber, joyless affair, a muddy and hopeless war picture that contains little of the ethereal poise of stuff like The Thin Red Line or heroic muscle such as Saving Private Ryan. As long as you can adjust and tune into it’s frequency it’s a well made, sorrowful look at the American effort against Japan, particularly a mission involving a regiment whose task is to protect Native Navajo code breakers that can detect messages fired off by the enemy. A mopey Nicolas Cage is their shell shocked leader, pressing his men onward into territory that no doubt contains the same horrors he witnessed before the film begins. We find him in a trauma ward initially, cared for by a kindly nurse (Frances O’Connor), until Jason Isaacs cameos as the recruitment officer who spurs him back into action. His troupe is composed solely of excellent, distinct acting talent and they help the film considerably. The Navajo are played by Adam Beach and Roger Willie, giving grace and nobility to two men who are out of their depth and terrified. Peter Stormare, Christian Slater, Noah Emmerich, Mark Ruffalo, Brian Van Holt and a standout Martin Henderson are the rest of the troops, each getting their moment to shine within the unit’s cohesive arc. Woo is an odd choice for a war picture, and his stylized flair for bullet ridden action is nowhere to be found in these bleak, bloodied trenches, trading in suits and duel wielded glocks for faded camo and muted rifle fire. The action is neither cathartic nor poetic, simply a concussive cacophony of combat that offers little aesthetic pleasure, forcing you to find the value in empathy towards these men, and as long as you can do that, you’ll get something out of it.