Review: ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ slashes its own success by forgetting to be strange

Review: ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ slashes its own success by forgetting to be strange

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is the first movie in an ambitious horror trilogy inspired by a cult classic slasher. Sadly, the movie’s determination to reproduce tropes and ignore what makes the original so enticing hinders its success.

The Strangers isn’t the first horror franchise people would expect to get a reboot treatment. The 2008 original became a sleeper hit despite a mixed critical reception, hauling $83 million from a $9 million budget. Since then, it has become a cult classic. However, its only sequel, 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, made a measly $32 million worldwide. That was enough to turn a profit given its $5 million budget but still showed that writer and director Bryan Bertino’s labor of love worked best as a standalone story. 

Yet, Lionsgate is about to release not one but three new The Strangers movies in the spawn of a single year, all set in a new continuity. That puts some incredible pressure on Chapter 1, as the movie must justify the existence of the whole trilogy. It does not.

What made the original The Strangers so enticing was how it used its tight 80-minute runtime to its favor. There’s not a lot of build-up before the main characters (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) start to be terrorized by masked home invaders, creating the uncomfortable feeling that this act of chaotic violence could happen to anyone. Plus, since the killers attack without purpose, the unfairness of the situation helps to increase the tension.

Image via Lionsgate

Before The Strangers, slashers were often used to thrill audiences with the punishment of liberal behaviors – such as in the Friday the 13th franchise – or as meta-commentaries about the horror genre – as we can see in Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Stripped from the slasher tradition, 2008’s The Strangers leaves a lasting impact because the suffering of its victims is senseless. They didn’t ignore signs or expose themselves to risk. They are just people trying to deal with the emotional complexity of their lives when all hell breaks loose. Maybe it’s because of this barebones (but terrifying!) approach to slashers that The Strangers took a while to be truly appreciated.

This historical lesson might seem irrelevant to judging of The Strangers: Chapter 1, but it’s necessary to understand why the new movie is so disappointing. The Strangers trilogy was conceived as a single story focused on the aftermath of the masked killers’ attack. Unfortunately, since the story was split into three parts, Chapter 1 in itself is just a different – and worse – version of the 2008 movie.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 follows Riverdale’s Madelaine Petsch and Teen Wolf’s Roy Gutierrez as lovebirds Maya and Ryan. As they are about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their relationship, Maya and Ryan end up stranded in a small Oregon town where the only shelter option for the night is a cabin in the woods rented as an Airbnb. It’s there that the strangers will knock on the door, looking for Tamara, before they start to play bloody games with the couple. 

Image via Lionsgate

While The Strangers: Chapter 1 offers a new setting for the home invasion, the movie basically follows the template of the original movie. However, the film tries to pad its runtime by adding a lengthy preamble that weakens the concept. That’s because, before being visited by the masked killers, Maya and Ryan will meet and greet a series of spooky villagers who all stare at the foreigners with wide eyes. Everyone is unnecessarily creepy, underlining how it’s a bad idea to remain there, even for a single night. That immediately contradicts The Strangers‘ essence. 

In the movie’s first arc, Maya and Ryan check every box of the horror movie trope list and turn a blind eye to a series of red flags. In doing that, The Strangers: Chapter 1 becomes more of a classic slasher, where people get hurt due to their own dumb choices. It’s not what we would expect from a retelling of a classic that had the opposite ethos.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 also lacks the emotional stakes of the original because Petsch and Gutierrez just don’t have the same chemistry as Tyler and Speedman. There’s nothing wrong with the leads’ performances individually, and both Petsch and Gutierrez are competent actors who messed around with spooky things quite often in their careers. Yet, they struggle to make Maya and Ryan’s relationship believable.

Image via Lionsgate

Part of the blame unquestionably lies in Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland’s script, which determines that Maya and Ryan must be the blandest people ever. Ryan is caring but manly and easy to anger, and of course, he eats a lot of bloody and greasy things. Maya, on her turn, is a vegetarian who more than often controls Ryan’s temper and tries to befriend everyone. It’s a by-the-books approach to straight couples that makes it hard to get attached to these characters.

Production factors might also help explain the dissonance between Petsch and Gutierrez. All three chapters of The Strangers trilogy were shot simultaneously and out of order. As an executive producer, Petsch was working on the trilogy as a whole, which gave her a unique insight into the story and characters. However, Gutierrez was called into the set to shoot Chapter 1 alone, making his presence more limited. That could have resulted in Petsch and Gutierrez working at different wavelengths on the silver screen.

Things get better when the home invasion plot finally unfolds, and director Renny Harlin does what he can to make things interesting – a whole sequence in the cabin’s crawlspace is by far the movie’s highlight. Yet, The Strangers: Chapter 1 can’t equal the tension of the first movie because we already know what’s going to happen.

This is the first chapter of a story that will explore the trauma of slasher survivors, which means someone has got to be alive at the end – and there are not many options. Without the benefit of surprise, the new movie can’t hold the audience’s attention quite as well, as everyone is just waiting for the real story to begin. As such, The Strangers: Chapter 1 just feels like an overstretched introduction.

Image via Lionsgate

As dissatisfying as The Strangers: Chapter 1 might be, there’s still hope for the trilogy. The cast and crew repeat in every interview that the story’s heart is in Chapters 2 and 3, where we’ll actually watch this new take on the franchise we have been promised. Plus, the trio of actors who play the masked killers manages to give their almost silent villains a spine-chilling aura with their body language alone. On that note, Matúš Lajčák’s Scarecrow killer is at the center of the movie’s most disturbing scenes.

With all that said, The Strangers trilogy could still deliver an exciting horror experience. Nevertheless, Chapter 1 makes us question the decision to split the story into three parts instead of going straight to what’s fresh.

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