Comparatively unambitious but skillfully built for skeeze, The Strangers: Random Colon Subtitle is a long-delayed or -threatened sequel to 2008’s vastly underrated nerve shredder.
Fresh off 2017’s unexpectedly successful shark thriller 47 Meters Down, director Johannes Roberts takes the reins from the first film’s writer-director Bryan Bertino, who’s content to co-write the second act of brutal murderers who cover their faces with burlap and baby-doll masks.
Where Bertino’s minimalist desperation chiseled into your cortex, Roberts employs a brutal smash-and-grab burgling of comfort that’s more percussive than concussive. He generally leans into a John Carpenter aesthetic, meaning he leans on synthesizers and fog machines, with the added oomph of loud ’80s power ballads. There’s a bit where one character literally abides by the refrain of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and emerges from it better than you would expect. And as the original wrestled with the randomness of evil, this powder-keg sequel still gives off sparks about the specificities of trauma.
Rather than a romantic couple on the outs, a family on the ropes are Dollface, Man in the Mask and Pin-Up’s playthings at which to prod. Mike and Cindy (Martin Henderson and Christina Hendricks) have exhausted all options for their troublemaking teenage daughter, Kinsey (Bailee Madison). Their last resort? Boarding school. Rather than ripping off a bandage, they make it into a family road trip along with overachieving son Luke (Lewis Pullman).
Luke doesn’t know why Kinsey can’t handle her business. Kinsey resents Luke for being able to leave on his own terms soon. It’s a considerably more interesting dynamic than the usual boyfriend-girlfriend expectation, and both Madison and Pullman find pathos and power within it once the siblings are forced to team up. Hendricks and Henderson are OK, equal to the original’s Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler in regard to palpable panic but less adept at silently expressing inner turmoil.
Presumably trying to save some scratch because tuition is expensive, the foursome bunks up at a resort owned by Cindy’s uncle — arriving well after dark. It’s not long before that familiar knock, the non sequitur question about Tamara and the beginning of a bloody siege.
Even with more acreage to cover than Bertino’s one-house location, Roberts’ film is as fat-free as its forebear. Bertino and co-writer Ben Ketai stage creative confrontations across trailers, fields, roads, pools, shops and bridges — and it’s nice to see protagonists who wrestle with if, and how, to fight back and who can actually do it better than you might anticipate. (This film does more in 107 seconds to consider the transition from armchair vigilantism than the Death Wish remake does in 107 minutes.)
As before, so it goes here with a nihilistic answer to why all this death. And yet, in an admirable about-face, the conclusion leaves scars on its characters without simply scorching the earth. On one hand, it asserts a different helplessness in acknowledging that even the threats you survive never emotionally recede. On the other, it’s also just a bleakly amusing slasher film in which one poor SOB is framed near a “Live bait sold here” sign. If all you’ve got is an itch for halfway-decent horror, this does just enough to scratch, claw and eviscerate it for a while.