Even after sitting through its underwhelming trailer, I held out hope for Franck Khalfoun’s Night of the Hunted (2023). After all, the French writer-director is responsible for 2012’s Maniac remake, which – through its brutal melding of the arthouse with the grindhouse – may be this century’s best slasher. But his latest is a far cry from that creative height; alas, it’s not even as entertaining as his campy debut, P2 (2007).
The plot is simple. On their way home from a work conference, coworkers/lovers Alice (Camille Rowe) and John (Jeremy Scippio) stop at a deserted gas station. For seemingly no reason (of course, there’s always some hidden reason), an unseen sniper kills John and wounds Alice, trapping her inside the attached convenience store. Thus ensues a largely toothless game of cat-and-mouse: Customers appear in order to increase the body count; Alice tries to escape using supplies from the store; rinse, repeat.
This basic setup (a woman’s isolated fight for survival against a murderous entity outside) sounds an awful lot like Crawl (2019), directed by Khalfoun’s longtime creative partner Alexandre Aja. But its replacement ingredients aren’t nearly as interesting. Instead of a decrepit, flooding home, we get a gas station; instead of a swarm of alligators, a ranting incel with a gun. This villain, voiced by Stasa Stanic, embodies the American alt right; taunting Alice via a walkie-talkie he left in the convenience store, he rails against fake news, wokeness, vaccines, abortion, and MeToo, among other things. Such cultural commentary is so on the nose that it’s borderline condescending. Like the reactionaries on whom their antagonist is modeled, Khalfoun and cowriter Glen Freyer namecheck these hot button issues without really understanding them.
Therein lies Night of the Hunted’s core problem. Khalfoun seems hellbent on proving to his audience that his movie is really about something to the extent that he forgets elements like suspense and style (not to mention subtlety; the sniper’s vantage point is a church billboard with GODISNOWHERE printed on it). The single-setting thriller quickly becomes tedious without some visual panache, yet the graceful camera movements and chiaroscuro lighting that made Maniac so exhilarating are nowhere to be seen.
Occasional glimpses of inspiration point to what this film could have been. In a moment of startling subversion, Khalfoun denies his audience perhaps the one thing they expect from these types of horror-thrillers. But it’s too little, too late: a brief flash of inspired realism in an otherwise by-the-numbers exercise.