The Strangers! Now that was a real corker of a horror-thriller, a film that I would have happily predicted at the time - the time was 2008 - was going to establish itself as a small classic of the genre. This does not seem to have happened, and yet ten years later, the film did get a sequel, so maybe there's been some community of the faithful, holding steady the promise of that most wonderful of home invasion thrillers. Also maybe not, because The Strangers: Prey at Night isn't nearly as good as its forebear, despite having some genuinely amazing cinematography and at least one candidate for the Slasher Movie Death Setpiece Hall of Fame.

That's one thing, right there: Prey at Night is, fundamentally, a slasher movie, and The Strangers is, fundamentally, not. Not that Prey at Night is at all bad for a slasher, as much as that means anything (there is no lower bound on quality for slasher movies, and the upper bound isn't very high, with a few critical exceptions). It has one thing going for it that is absolutely undeniable, which is some ace cinematography by Ryan Samul (who has been all over the indie film map, but his horror film bona fides come from his work on the celebrated films of director Jim Mickle). The film is drunk with atmosphere, which is already a good thing, but Samul's contribution goes beyond that: Prey at Night has some startlingly ambitious shots, involving complicated focal depths, gradual zooms, sharp contrasts in color and lighting. At a certain point, one has to wonder if the film isn't investing in cinematography at the expense of everything else. There is on the one hand being, say, a Mario Bava film, where cinematography is certainly king, but cinematography is also being used to shape our response to the florid, grandiose expressions of wild violence; and on the other hand, indulging in amazingly-executed compositions that abandon the mission of horror altogether.

Prey at Night redeems itself from that latter charge with its best images that occur during its best moment as a slasher film: it's a late battle in a swimming pool at night, surrounded by garish neon palm trees, the pool itself creating a striking turquoise block seen as different shapes from different angles. As the two involved parties splash in and out of the water, the camera keeps bobbing up and down, the sound mix hectically switching back and forth from muted underwater noises to crisp exterior sounds. At the fight's climax, there's a deeply Italianate shot of blood billowing through the pool water like thunderheads crashing through a mountain pass. It's tremendous stuff, and it is sufficient all by itself to justify Prey at Night as a remarkably beautiful art-horror film.

The bad news is, it is all by itself. Again, it's not that this is bad, for a 21st Century slasher film, but it's also not good. The most the film can boast, besides its weirdly good cinematography, is a solid location, and it's not exactly one that horror cinema has been slow to exploit: a mysterious old campground! The story goes that an unhappy family is going on a forcibly cheery road trip: teenager Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is being dropped off at boarding school, but only after she, mom Cindy (Christina Hendricks), dad Mike (Martin Henderson), and older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) put in a few days at the campground owned by Uncle Marv (Ken Strunk) and Aunt Sheryl (Mary Louise Casanta). They're all putting on a variably brave faces as to how exciting they find this, but we know something they don't: Uncle Marv and Aunt Sheryl have had a run-in with a woman wearing a mask that looks like the face of a porcelain doll (Emma Bellomy). She's just one of three psychos (Damian Maffei plays the one in a sack-like mask, Lea Enslin is the one with a mask like a '40s pin-up model) who've decided that the woodsy trailer park will be a great place for them to spend their time doing what they do.

What they do, as revealed in The Strangers and is true here as well, is almost totally without purpose. They terrorise, stalk and kill because. That's not a half-bad M.O. for a movie killer, if it includes the sense of utter perversion that happened in the first movie: there was a sense there of the evil coming to the protagonists for no reason other than their own profound misfortune. Prey at Night can't quite recapture that; it takes place in what is so clearly a film location, and one that the protagonists go to somewhat despite their best instincts, that it can't help but feel like they're going towards danger, rather than danger arbitrarily falling upon them. Plus, the location in question - many trailers in the woods at night - feels awfully akin to the lined-up cabins of Friday the 13th and its innumerable children, which means that the very best we can hope for is that Prey at Night will be a knowing throwback.

And oh, it's that. This film is falling-down drunk on its love of the 1980s, generally not in very productive ways. For the most part, it takes the form of the film's soundtrack, a valentine to the power pop of the exact era that the slasher film was just finding its footing ("Kids in America", "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and "Making Love Out of Nothing at All" are the most prominently-placed tracks), and this cannot help but feel snazzily ironic in a way that sucks all the life out of the movie. That amazing pool scene, for example, is scored with "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and... why? I cannot think of anything this does to the scene's benefit, and I can somewhat imagine that it would have been improved just by letting Adrian Johnston's grumbling, threatening score take over.

The vague sense of "hey, aren't we being cute" that the music kisses the film with doesn't really amount to anything at all; director Johannes Roberts is going for proficient atmosphere, not coy humor. Just like in his last film, 47 Meters Down, the atmosphere is pretty much all there is here: Prey at Night has a boilerplate plot, and the characters are all garbage ciphers, who we barely get to know as meat puppet set up to be slashed apart, let alone as interesting humans to follow. Atmosphere goes some way, but it doesn't go all the way, and for all that the pool scene gives Prey at Night a much needed jolt as it enters the final stretch, that's much more about making the film tolerable than making it actually "good".