If you’re going to go with a generic title for your movie, you need to make sure it stands out from the crowd. Doubly so if said title is going to evoke both Charles Laughton‘s incredible Night of the Hunter, and (as a much deeper cut) erotically-charged French surrealist Jean Rollin. Director Franck Khalfoun eschews both dreamy Southern Gothic and gauzy existentialism in favour of a clinical game of cat and mouse between a sniper and his intended victim at a remote gas station. Despite a compelling first act drenched in clammy tension, Khalfoun’s Night of the Hunted never comes close to its near namesakes, squandering its taut setup with some muddled geography and a MAGA hat full of jumbled right-wing talking points.

Alice (Camille Rowe) pulls into a 24-hour gas station with John (Jeremy Scipio), a colleague with whom she’s having an illicit affair. The store seems deserted at first, but no sooner has Alice spotted a sign behind the counter splattered with blood, then she’s taken down by a bullet to the shoulder. John fares much worse. Alice is stuck in a battle of wits with a merciless sniper who has any number of potential reasons why he’s targeting her, and any other hapless person who appears through the night to fill up their tank.

Director and co-writer Franck Khalfoun (who has form for gas station-based carnage as an actor, having been on the receiving end of an axe, Scatman Crothers-style, in High Tension) partially succeeds in creating the necessary sense of hair-trigger peril required for such an enclosed, single-location thriller. Camille Rowe gives the latest in a long run of excellent female lead performances this year as someone who may just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who may be the target of a planned assault. It’s a first act of admirably efficient storytelling, and when Night of the Hunted sticks to its jangling action it’s a robust high-concept chiller with a brutal realism to each bullet. Even when some of the camera angles and shot choices make Alice’s location in the store unclear (often leaving it to faith that she’s actually out of  the sniper’s line of sight) it’s a forgivable wobble.

Far less convincing is the interminable dialogue between Alice and the sniper via walkie talkie. While Alice isn’t the most likable protagonist, her being unfaithful to her partner and having a job as a social media manager for a pharmaceutical company is posited as somehow of debatable moral equivalence to the obscure motivations of the gunman. And what a list he gives: disgruntled army vet, anti-vaxxer, and conspiracy theorist for starters. When he spits out his list of grievances, it sounds not unlike the reasoning given in the manifesto of Anders Breivik. Perhaps that’s why Khalfoun and his largely French crew have set the film in the USA. In Europe this kind of shooting is an outrage. In America, it’s just Tuesday.

The lengthy back-and-forth not only stalls the film’s momentum, but doesn’t actually provide any actual clarification of the gunman’s intentions. Is the sniper everything he says he is? Which of his motives, if any, are for real? Khalfoun’s aiming to tap into a particular Trumpian paranoia where every blue-collar sap with a grudge and a gun could be the next one pumping high-velocity rounds into the body populous, but it leaves Night of the Hunted stranded between two stools. More effective would be an apparently random Charles Whitman-type sniper, or to make apparent what exactly was the straw that broke the trigger-happy camel’s back. Instead, there’s a perfectly serviceable horror thriller with a flawed but resourceful heroine that’s dragged towards tedium by its inclination to state-of-the-nation sabre rattling. Franck Khalfoun certainly isn’t a fish out of water working in America – his Maniac is one of the best horror remakes in recent memory – but where an outsider’s perspective can provide a precise ray of clarity, here it feels like an oversimplified stab in the dark.

Screening on Shudder from Fri 20 Oct 2023