The Strangers: Prey At Night isn’t quite the 80s movie the music and trailers suggest, and it’s not quite the 70s movie that the logo other trailers suggest. (It’s too bad about the colon; The Strangers Prey At Night could legitimately be the title of a forgotten original-generation slasher.)
This isn’t really a Carpenter homage like It Follows. The titular strangers have picked up an inexplicable obsession with 70s/80s pop music in between films, but the soundtrack doesn’t feature the heavy synths we associate with the era; silent for long periods, when the soundtrack does rouse itself, it’s made up of shrieking strings and other standard fare.
I only caught one Carpenter homage, and it’s a very telling one: a few shots late in the film copied from Christine. Christine is a fascinating movie, one that serves as a horror-based inversion of Back to the Future. Where Marty McFly uses a car to return to the 50s and re-integrate his awkward nerd father into the social fabric, Christine is about a car that returns from the 50s to remove an awkward nerd from the social fabric.
Prey At Night is as haunted by the 80s as Christine is haunted by the 50s, and expresses it in the same way: diagetic music and cars. The doomed family of PAN is on a road trip to the new boarding school of troubled teen Kinsey (Bailee Madison), who we know is a troubled teen because she smokes and wears a Ramones shirt.
The arrival of the murdering strangers is really an extension of the familial drama, not an escape from it. Their unexplained obsession — particularly the “father”’s — with the 80s pop music that blasts out of their massive car as they track their victims down cements them as spectral projections of the family dynamics.
It takes a long while to pick up — you can arrive about 70 minutes in and not miss much — but, by the end, PAN becomes a deeply cathartic movie about parents and families that doesn’t need to state anything too openly. Hopefully it will lead us to actually try to appreciate the dark side of our 80s obsession, rather than mine it for synthesizer cues.