The Strangers: Prey at Night and the Strange World of ‘80s Nostalgia
On the third track of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Giorgio Moroder discusses the usage of the synthesizer and its basis as “a sound of the future.” He goes on to say that “you can do anything you want”, as there is no judgment, no preconceptions, with the rhythms of the expansive technology. It was, admittedly, a time where romance of futurism and media were frustratingly connected, with the genre-fare becoming bleaker and increasingly aggressive, tuned to the beats of mutilated flesh and existential ennui. The music was waiting for the world, and our perception of it, to speed up and ignite towards The Jetsons, but the result of synth in the ‘70s and ‘80s is clashing ambiance, doomed to accompany a world unfit for its possibility.
Michael Mann utilized Tangerine Dream for Thief as another element of enclosure for its protagonist, and the stingers tied to jump-scare suddenness in slasher films were indicative of lo-fi aspirations. Synth-wave was, and will always be, an escape from the reality surrounding us, searching for transcendence in the face of morality. It is why Drive and The Guest are only a few of countless inspiration and homage works attempting a new filmic destination—the present is never enough.
But what’s different is how these films are looking back, rather than forward. The synthwave vibes embedded in their extended montages and action set-pieces are calling back to a time where the hope of a better future was still in the cards. In the 2010s, any remnant of that glossy optimism buried in pessimistic horror and depressing sci-fi is long gone, on a spaceship to nowhere. Instead, many genre pieces are regressing—not necessarily in complexity, but in forward-thinking momentum. Sure, the showdown between David and Anna in The Guest—set in a fog-enshrouded, neon-lit, ‘80s-scored Halloween dance— is thrillingly modern, craft-wise, but its motive and place in existence doesn’t have an inch of merit. It is spectacle and nostalgia for a time of barriers, with the populace far-removed from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it signals a yearning for a world slightly less shitty than our own. And yet, the aftermath of the recent ‘80s nostalgia craze, which in and of itself has become common-place, is a pile of largely dispensable genre fare with inherently sparkling, vivid energy, and color.
That a sequel to The Strangers (a film that tackled the post-torture-porn clean-up and backlash better than Haneke’s two Funny Games entries) rises to the challenge of criticizing this specific sub-genre is a surprise to say the least, but it’s even more surprising to reveal that it is remarkable in its own right—a terrifying and sad depiction of disposable bodies struggling to not meet their end. Directed by Johannes Roberts (who helmed the shark-thriller 47 Meters Down), the typical slasher fodder isn’t hidden. Rather, it’s explored and made identifiable by his creeping camera of slow-zooms and ever-swelling space. The family in turmoil, heading up to a relative’s trailer-park escape for the weekend, is seeking healing, but of course, old wounds sprout fresh gashes, and they are suddenly hunted by masked killers without reason or motive.
It’s basic by default, with the personality types of the familial dynamic never being annoying, instead providing enough interest to empathize for their inevitable demise while still allowing us to anticipate a thrilling death-scene. Slashers are for sick people, and this movie doesn’t pander, offering a dissection and an embodiment of the very best in its class. The tension is like the thickest molasses, and Roberts finds ample opportunity for incredibly effective jump-scares and foreground/background conversation, bursting towards moments of gratifying adrenaline punctuated by smash-zooms and smooth, vicious staging.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is a modern slasher classic for all the reasons a slasher should be considered a classic, but that doesn’t fully sell the film and its more fascinating qualities. Prey at Night also offers a distinct set of ‘80s tunes (which isn’t inherently exciting at this point) that are diegetic and coordinated by the main killer. When characters die, the soundtrack rises to a fever-pitch, and when danger is close in proximity to our characters, synth-pop can be faintly heard oozing out of the killer’s car radio. At one point, the killer turns the music up as he murders a member of the family. During another moment, the stage is set for an ‘80s slasher showdown by a pool, the killers fulfilling their slasher fantasies, and it’s something right out of Adam Wingard or Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography, only contextualized by the killer’s love for the perfect needle-drop. This exhilarating self-awareness and commentary is furthered by the non-diegetic synth score by Ryan Samul, which frequently, intentionally conflicts with tracks such as ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ‘Making Love Out of Nothing at All’.
While this seems like some music-video slasher, it should be noted that silence is the prevailing sound in Prey at Night, as the soundtrack and score find roles of their own, exemplifying the killers’ knowledgeability of mythologizing the past, attempting to paint themselves as the heroes and stars of their own story. The key lies in the fact that the entire world isn’t some ‘80s nostalgia wonderland, but a modernized society, and the murderers cling to what’s come before them, rather than the director. The focus on ‘80s synth, then, becomes a sign of recognition—that the youth in Prey at Night are ready to imagine their own future rather than firmly staying put in the mud. Johannes Roberts has brought hope to synth—and, to an extent, modern horror—again by giving it back to the dreamers. It’s a scream.