Things get scary on a visit to The Strangers: Prey at Night Set
It is 10:30pm when I finally arrive at the set of The Strangers: Prey at Night. From the moment I stepped off the plane — into an apocalyptically empty international airport — I felt like I was walking into a horror movie. A quick cab ride into the middle of nowhere, northern Kentucky, took me to the set’s base camp, just past a prison at the end of a dark road. The set was another car ride away even deeper into the wilderness. When I arrived, the eerie sounds of crickets and frogs and who-knows-what-else chilled my city-girl heart, and made the abandoned trailer park feel that much more foreboding.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is not exactly a “sequel” to The Strangers, the 2008 horror film in which three masked goons terrorize a couple in a secluded vacation home. It sounds like Prey is set in the same “universe” as The Strangers: a family on a road trip stops to visit relatives at a mobile home park and finds it abandoned… save for three familiar masked goons. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Martin Henderson (The Ring) play the parents, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s son) and Bailee Madison (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) play the kids. “I think what I loved so much about it is that people who have seen and loved the first movie can come to this and it’s perfect and it’s a nod to the first one and they will feel it is in the same family,” Bailee told me between takes. “But for those who, like me, were eight [when the original came out] and couldn’t go see it, can come see this and be enthralled in the world of The Strangers, and equally as terrified. So yeah, it’s a nod to the first, but also a hello to the new generation of people that are going to be terrorized by these crazy masked killers.”
Like any good horror film, much of the shooting takes place at night. “From an actor’s standpoint, I liked it,” Bailee enthuses. “There is something very vulnerable about night shoots. You are all emotionally in a different place than you are when you are awake and rested in the daytime. I think for something traumatic like this, you have to be able to access different emotions. At night, you are a lot more capable.”
The trailer park they are filming in doesn’t hurt, either. Production took over a 56-acre former neighborhood on the other side of the airport. When the airport expanded their runways, the residents filed a class-action lawsuit. The airport was forced to buy out everyone living in the neighborhood. All but two homeowners — one on either end of the property — took the deal. The remaining structures were torn down, leaving a virtually abandoned neighborhood. “The land was just sitting here, waiting, for Strangers,” said production designer Freddy Waff.
All that was there were the roads. Everything else — the trailers, the vehicles, the street lights, the mailboxes — were installed by production. Waff explains that they checked out 48 different used trailers for sale before settling on 22 different structures. Only six are staged to film in. They are quite small, only about 15-16 feet wide and roughly 70 feet long. Most of the stuff filmed inside the trailers was shot with Steadicam, but they recreated two of the trailers on a soundstage to “accommodate the trickier, cool camera stuff we wanted to do.
“Some of them it looked like people had just left in a hurry,” Waff continues. “You never know what really happened, but they all kind of have their own personality. This one wasn’t so bad. Some of the other ones, whatever happened in there, I didn’t really want to know. We found all kinds of weird things. There was some disturbing artwork, people had written things on the walls. Very odd.” Most of the stuff left behind was cleared out, but one teddy bear stuck with Waff and made it into the film. “This teddy bear I found in one of these trailers. I kicked over this bag and the bear fell out. I said, ‘Yeah, you’re going in the movie, dude.'” Far creepier than the teddy bear is a weird piece of Raggedy Ann art made out of yarn and fabric. This didn’t come with the trailer; production stumbled upon this “child’s acid trip nightmare” in a thrift shop.
Most of the scenes I watch them film feature Bailee screaming at something off-camera. Dressed in a Ramones tee and ripped jeans, with smeared eye liner and jet black hair, Bailee looks like the typical rebellious teenager. “When I signed on to this [movie], I wanted to shed any image of something attractive that could be pinned on Pinterest as a ‘cool outfit’ and just become something entirely new and different,” she told me. “[We wanted to] create something and not be afraid to be dirty and not look pretty and not be afraid to have a really ugly picture of yourself out there. In these moments it’s ugly and it’s real and it’s raw. That was fun to get to explore.”
In keeping it “real” and “raw,” Bailee does a lot of her own stunts in this film. “Cal Johnson is our stunt coordinator and he is brilliant beyond words,” she enthuses. “The most important thing when I signed on was that I wanted to be part of the physicality as much as I was part of the character building and emotional side. That’s not something you are able to do every day. Cal said, ‘If you’re in for it, I’m in for it’ and [director] Johannes [Roberts] said, ‘If you won’t get hurt, I am in for it.’ We have an amazing stunt team that stepped in for the stuff that Cal really won’t let us do. For the majority of it, I think I’ve been able to do it.” One of the makeup artists on the film comments that sometimes she has to cover up actual bruises on Bailee’s body. “She had to cover up the actual bruises with dirt because they were so bad, all over my legs. But I love it! I’m so proud of it!”
Aside from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Bailee has managed to avoid falling into the “scream queen” role that many girls her age can never seem to leave behind. “Probably 85% of the scripts that are being sent out are horror,” she confirmed. So what was it about The Strangers: Prey at Night that was different for her? “I read this script and immediately, what I had not been finding in other horror scripts, I found in this one: a connection to characters; a real story; a setting and a place that you could actually be in, that you could actually experience, that we all fear. Being in a situation, and hearing three knocks, and having nowhere to go. I think that’s what I love about it so much: how realistic it was, in a very inhuman, awful place. If I could be terrified reading it on the paper, I knew that if we were able to bring it to life correctly – with the team we have, we are very blessed – that it would be something that I’d be fortunate to be a part of.” It probably didn’t hurt that Bailee says her “biggest fear” is masks, and she confirms there have been several times on this set she has been genuinely scared.
Our interview has to wrap up as production readies for the biggest set-up of the night: an explosion so big it could only signify the climax of the film. Seems like the perfect end to a whirlwind set visit.
The Strangers: Prey at Night opens in theaters on March 9.