Four years ago, film scholar and reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz published something between a manifesto and a call to arms on RogerEbert.com, where he's the editor in chief. Decrying the state of film journalism, "Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking" entreated colleagues to contribute to "visual literacy" by offering analysis of the art form's technical aspects — "the compositions, the cutting, the music, the décor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece."
Seitz made a fair point. As with any good thing, though, it was only a matter of time until too much came along. I realized we'd arrived at this point recently, while reading a rapturous review of The Strangers: Prey at Night. Written by Mark Dujsik, the critique is so incredibly, obsessively dense with references to technique that it makes almost no sense at all. Unsurprisingly, it appeared on the site overseen by Seitz.
Directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down), this is the delayed-action sequel to Bryan Bertino's 2008 home-invasion thriller The Strangers, in which a threesome of masked maniacs terrorize a random couple at night. This time around, Bertino was content to cowrite the screenplay with Ben Ketai and let Roberts deal with the demands of staging grisly mayhem. Not the highest artistic calling, surely, but a reliably marketable skill in our culture.
In the decade since the original, the psycho killers have branched out. No longer satiated by menacing random couples, Dollface (Emma Bellomy), Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin) and Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei) now target a random family of four. The dad (Martin Henderson), mom (Christina Hendricks), troubled teen (Bailee Madison) and older brother (Lewis Pullman) are introduced in an expansive prologue that delineates their dysfunctional dynamic as though it were the story's subject.
The device might qualify as a nifty Hitchcockian bit of misdirection (à la Psycho) if not for the fact that every human being in the world who sees this movie will go in knowing it's a slasher film and not a coming-of-age saga. So, kind of a waste of time. Which should shock absolutely no one. This, as I mentioned, is the guy who gave us 47 Meters Down.
Spoiler alert: Family members one by one meet gruesome fates. With the exception of some hand-to-hand combat in a swimming pool, none of this is orchestrated in a particularly innovative manner. To the contrary, a preponderance of the picture's bloody bedlam is straight out of the Halloween (1978) playbook. Much of the silliness — slain bad guys getting back up again and again, victims momentarily getting the upper hand only to leave the attacker unconscious with their ax or butcher knife thoughtfully placed beside them — is precisely the sort of nonsense common in horror cartoons of that time.
Also, Michael Myers, let's remember, wore a mask. And was a moral cipher like the ultraviolent trio of The Strangers. Roughly the same age, too: 23. (We recall him as older, right?)
I'm not sure why the film's creators imagined any of this would interest audiences. Even more unfathomable, now that I've seen the movie, is the aforementioned adoring review. If you can tell me what Dujsik is so excited about, please shoot me an email.
All things considered, my advice is to skip this insipid rip-off and just hold out for the latest Halloween. No fooling. Forty years later, John Carpenter is still at it, though now as exec producer and composer. Coming October 19, it's called Halloween.
Some things never change.