The Strangers: Chapter 1 (R) ★★½

Review Date: May 20th, 2024

According to director Renny Harlin, who filmed all three parts of this horror trilogy back-to-back-to-back, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is not a prequel to the taut 2008 film, The Strangers, but the start of a new story "inspired by" the original. Indeed, it is closer to a remake, using many of the same plot points and tropes but losing a degree of the terror that defined Bryan Bertino's debut feature. Although this movie may work well enough for those who haven't been exposed to the first The Strangers, for the initiated, it often feels like an imitation.

It's difficult to judge Chapter 1 without having seen Chapters 2 and 3. Perhaps Harlin felt it was necessary to regurgitate The Strangers in order to move the story forward. For the moment, all we have is Chapter 1 and it falls into the mediocre category. Some of the scenes, particularly those that transpire inside the house, are edgy. Unfortunately, the outside material feels disjointed and lacks the intensity evident during the home invasion sequences.

Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) and Maya (Madelaine Petsch) are on a road trip when, compelled by rumbling stomachs, they pull over at a diner in the backwater Oregon town of Venus (population<400). While ordering their meal, they get a lot of stares; expressions of incredulity follow when Maya admits to being a vegetarian. After they finish their meal and get back into the car, the engine won't start. The local mechanic says he can't fix the problem until the next day, but fortunately there's an available Airbnb house in the area, so that becomes home for the night for the couple, who don't let the wooded surroundings prevent them from getting frisky. Or at least that's until the loud banging at the door starts. They don't know it yet but they have been targeted by a trio of masked murderers.

The Strangers are the same three we met in the first movie: Scarecrow (Matus Lajcak), Dollface (Olivia Kreutzova), and Pin-Up (Letizia Fabbri). As with Michael Myers, we never see their faces. Instead, viewers and victims alike are confronted with the implacable, fixed-expression face coverings (in Scarecrow's case, a burlap sack over his head). Their motivations are as opaque as their identities. When asked why they're stalking the couple, Pin-Up (the only one to utter a line) says "Because you're here." That lack of motivation and backstory helped make The Strangers compelling and, at least for Chapter 1, Harlin keeps the mystery intact. Although they're seemingly people in masks, there's an almost supernatural aspect to the way they toy with their prey.

Harlin, who made a name for himself directing Die Hard 2, understands how to make a horror movie. There are occasional jump-scares but he also has fun with those "boo!" moments by teasing them then backing away. The Strangers occasionally appear in the background where the viewers can see them but the characters can't (Harlin arguably goes to this well a few times too many). There are a few memorable sequences, none better than the one in which Maya takes a shower with the possibility that a Stranger may be watching. She senses a presence but, with shampoo lathering her scalp and running down her face, she can't open her eyes to confirm her worst fears.

Although there are stretches when the movie generates tension, the seeming inevitability of the endgame limits its power. I might have been more kindly disposed to the relentlessly dark nature of the story if I hadn't seen essentially the same narrative developed with more flair 16 years ago. As a follow-up/homage, Chapter 1 isn't bad but it feels superfluous, adding little substantive to what was previously provided by The Strangers and the second film in the series, 2018's The Strangers: Prey at Night. It remains to be seen whether my opinion will change once this has been combined with the other two chapters of Harlin's horror opus.

© 2024 James Berardinelli