Horror films are very difficult to make. Like comedies, they rely on precise timing. In a comedy, a filmmaker must maintain tension and release it at the right moment in order to make viewers laugh. Horror is similar. The goal is simply to make viewers scream instead.
Comedy movies also tend to succeed when the people involved in making them are fans of the comedy genre itself. It’s not uncommon for studios to release forgettable comedies starring actors who are more at home in other types of movies. The comedies which stand the test of time are those in which the talent both behind and in front of the camera appreciates the genre and understands how it works.
The same principle applies to horror: It’s important to recruit a director who loves the genre. They’ll have the experience, expertise, and instincts necessary to make the right choices and craft a truly scary picture.
That’s why it was a good idea to hire Johannes Roberts as the director of The Strangers: Prey at Night. This 2018 sequel to 2008’s The Strangers required a filmmaker who knows how to keep viewers on the edge of their seat.
Roberts certainly has the necessary experience. His filmography includes a fair share of horror movies. However, simply checking a director’s past credits to see if they have worked in the genre before isn’t enough to confirm they’re the right person to make a sequel to one of the most popular horror films in recent memory. It’s also necessary to make sure they have enthusiasm for the material. An otherwise talented director can still make a weak film if they don’t care about the story they’re telling.
Luckily, this was not the case with Roberts. In interviews leading up to the release of The Strangers: Prey at Night, he revealed that he’s a dedicated student of the horror genre who referred to popular horror influences when planning the movie. Specifically, Roberts stated that he wanted the movie to look something like a John Carpenter film. Carpenter, who directed horror classics like Halloween and The Thing, has been a major influence on horror directors since the 1970s.
By citing a director like Carpenter, Roberts made it very clear that he’s the type of director who understands what makes a movie like this work. He also incorporated ‘80s-style music into the score to ensure the movie felt like a genuine horror flick from that decade. On top of that, Roberts stated that he would not have been able to make the film unless he knew he could inject some of his own personality into it. This makes it very clear he cared about the material and didn’t merely take on the project for a paycheck.
Of course, loving horror movies and striving to make one that resembles the work of masters like Carpenter isn’t the same thing as actually pulling the feat off. Roberts managed to do so by making certain clever choices during the film’s production.
Hiring Ryan Samul as his cinematographer was one of those shrewd decisions. Although there are many elements that distinguish classic John Carpenter horror films (and classic ‘80s horrors, in general) from others in the genre, the visual style of his movies is a major factor. According to interviews, Roberts had seen Samul’s earlier work and believed he had the talent and impulses necessary to achieve the “John Carpenter look.” As Roberts puts it, they spent a lot of time on the set making sure roads were wet (this visual detail from classic horror movies ensures that roads are more visible on screen when shot at night) and using fog machines to create the ideal atmosphere. Roberts also instructed Samul to use zoom lenses, which aren’t very popular in most films made these days. He understood that something as seemingly unimportant as the lenses the cinematographer used would, in fact, contribute substantially to the film’s overall style.
The results speak for themselves. The Strangers: Prey at Night is a thrilling sequel to a film that could have overshadowed any future installments had the wrong director been at the helm. Luckily, the team behind this sequel understood that the kinds of directors who make great horror movies are directors who love the genre. It’s clear now that Johannes Roberts was the right choice.