The Strangers: Prey at Night exists in a strange world. Not exactly a sequel to 2008's The Strangers; not really a remake or reboot. So what is it? Well, it's a damn fine slasher flick, that's what.
In Prey at Night, a family of four sets off to deliver troubled teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school. On the way, they stop to visit family in a quiet trailer park, only to discover things are not quite as they appear. A trio of familiar masked goons terrorize the family for seemingly no reason — they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the killers just seem to enjoy terrorizing and murdering others.
SYFY WIRE spoke to director Johannes Roberts about stepping into the world of The Strangers, shooting in the middle of nowhere, and easter eggs for fans of the original film.
Johannes Roberts: I was just doing some meetings off the back of 47 Meters Down, and the producers had the script come to the market when Relativity, the previous company, was going bankrupt. The script found its way to them, and they offered it to me. They asked what I felt about the first film. I was very nervous because I was a big fan of the first movie, and I've never done a sequel before. It's been 10 years since the first one. There were all kinds of things in my mind that made it a bit of a minefield. But I read the script and really responded to it. So I decided to go for it, see where it [took] me. It's been a fun journey.
Do you consider this a sequel?
It fits into an odd world. We live in the world of The Strangers. It's not a direct sequel, but it's not a reboot. I'm not quite sure what the best way to describe it is.
A shared universe, maybe?
So you were a fan of the original film?
Very much. I thought Bryan [Bertino, writer/director of the original] did an amazing job. His use of space and sound, it was all just phenomenal. He's an amazing writer. I thought the script, for the first one, the character setup, the family, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, and the failed marriage proposal... I just thought it was genius.
Are there any Easter eggs for fans?
[Laughs] Yeah, there are little touches. We paid a lot of attention to the first movie. The car has the same number plate. The costumes are almost identical. There are little bits and bobs here and there. Bailee is wearing the same shirt that Liv Tyler wore in the first one. We even started the movie with them putting the Christian Living leaflet through the door, from the end of the first movie. It didn't quite work. I felt it was too in-jokey, and that audiences probably wouldn't get the reference, so I cut that out, actually. But we did shoot it.
Is that something we can expect to see on the DVD release?
You know, I hadn't thought of that until just now, talking to you! Yeah, I suppose I could put that in there.
My favorite scene in the film is the fight scene shot at the pool. The music, the lighting, it all works. Can you talk about shooting that?
Filmmaking is such a funny thing. If I were to tell you the most complicated and tricky scene we shot in that whole movie, I would say it was the car driving scene at the beginning, with the family just chatting in the car. That was just a nightmare! You've got the car on the trailer-thing, and I'm in a different car with monitors, and you've got traffic and police cars. Actors are trying to perform, but it's just impossible. You go backward and forward, and there is never enough road. It's an absolute nightmare.
Whereas the pool sequence, it just sort of worked. That was the one everyone was worried about — me included. The pool was not in the trailer park where we shot. It was miles away, and we went there for a different tax incentive in that part of Kentucky. When I first saw the pool, I thought, "I just don't know if I can make this work." It had been written as a small-ish pool, like a motel pool. But this pool was like, double-Olympic sized. I thought, "How the f*** am I even going to light this thing?" It was like eight meters deep, we were right next to the river... it [felt] like a nightmare. As soon as we turned the lights on, the entire insect world descended on us. I had to have a whole team of people working to clear these massive insects out of the pool. They all went into the water, and it was like the pool was bubbling. I was like, "I can't put the camera on this! It looks like I'm making Lord of the Rings!"
But then it just sort of worked. It was an easy scene to film, to a point. Obviously, there was underwater stuff involved, which is always tricky, but I had just come off of 47 Meters Down, so it wasn't that tricky. [The actors] just went at it. While everything was getting set up, I double filmed it on an iPhone, and we just kind of went ahead and shot what I shot in the iPhone. Cal Johnson, the stunt guy, did a great job making sure that fight worked. It was tricky, but not half as tricky as shooting that bloody dialogue scene at the beginning of the movie!
I visited the set while you were filming in the trailer park you created in the middle of nowhere. It was quite creepy. Did you have any scary moments out there?
No, not really. I wish I could give you a good answer to that! I do a lot of scary movies, which means I am working in a lot of scary places, like psychiatric hospitals or abandoned air force bases. I'm always shooting at night, so I'm pretty used to it. I record a video to my son every day, so I would wander off at night and just wander into the woods and record these videos for him. I loved it. I think the scariest aspect of it was the ticks.
We were warned about that!
Yeah, it became a big thing. Maybe too much of a big thing. It was like — tick-mageddon.
There was a lot of classic 1980s music in the film. Can you talk about the music choices?
We started with "Total Eclipse of the Heart." I'm a massive Jim Steinman fan. I didn't know necessarily that I was going to use that track, but I knew there was going to be a big '80s ballad over the pool sequence, and I shot it with that in mind, with the colors and the look. I decided to [put the music over the scene] and see how it worked. So we put "Total Eclipse of the Heart" over that sequence. I don't think we even tried different places to use the song; we just put it over that scene, and it just clicked. Going back to that car scene, we would cut and recut and it would take forever. But that pool sequence, when we cut it, it just sort of worked. Then we put the song over it, and it worked even better.
In my mind, I was making Christine. I was having fun with the car, really made the car a character. In Christine, John Carpenter uses all the rock and roll tracks. So every time we see the car, I decided to try to play with music. We tried different styles of music, but then we decided to continue with this 1980s vibe.
The whole movie I shot like an '80s slasher movie, with all the zoom lenses and such. The movie just became a different thing, and it felt like it was what it had wanted [to be] all along. I would come home every night and go through my music collection and see what I could find. Some of it is music from my childhood. I don't know if you [in the U.S.] have the music collection Now. They're up to, like Now 99, I think. I had Now 9 as a kid, and "Live it Up" by Mental as Anything was on it. I knew I wanted to use that song. It was fun, digging out some forgotten tracks. Marilyn Martin actually wrote to us to say thank you for remembering her with "Night Moves." It was great fun. I've never had so much fun, actually, just playing around with all these tracks.
You seem to really stick with horror and sci-fi films. What is it that draws you to the genre, and what are you working on next?
It's just the way my mind works. I like the fantastical element of it. Every morning I like to wake up and pretend I am either Stephen King or John Carpenter — which I am neither, but it's fun to pretend.
I'm just starting a movie called 13 O'Clock which hopefully we will start shooting imminently. It's all based in coffins, on Day of the Dead, so it'll be super-creepy. Then I'm doing the sequel to the shark movie 47 Meters Down, imaginatively titled 48 Meters Down. So I foresee a few more scary movies in my future. I've also got a Stephen King adaptation, called Hearts in Atlantis. It's a beautiful, beautiful coming-of-age story, which is not horror. It's a trickier one to finance, because King's brand is horror and my brand is horror, so it's a delicate one, but I would love to do that. So I imagine you'll see a few more scary movies — creaking door movies, I call them — in the future.