The Strangers: Chapter 1 Review

In 2008, The Strangers capitalized on the fear of randomized violence so well that it recouped its budget nine times over. The film shows a hapless couple who, while spending the night in an unfamiliar location, fall victim to three masked lunatics for no reason at all. With The Strangers: Chapter 1, director Renny Harlin and writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland attempt to refresh the franchise; unfortunately, they do so with palpable cynicism and a paint-by-numbers screenplay that cribs liberally from The Strangers. Rehashing a cult classic’s best lines and plot points is not the same as paying homage, and this supposed prelude to the later crimes of Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl only gunks up its predecessor’s simple and sinister premise.

Chapter 1 follows Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez), a New York couple both woodenly beautiful and averse to self-preservation. Car trouble forces them to make a rural detour on their road trip to Portland, Oregon, and they land in an Airbnb in a small town where all the locals hate them for being city slickers, or vegetarians, or whatever. After some stale foreplay, the franchise’s signature baddies play cat-and-mouse with the couple all night long. Some of the chaos is original, but most of it is – as our idiot protagonists must be after their long, bumbling ordeal – tired.

This problems begin right after the opening titles, when we’re informed that 1.4 million violent crimes occur in America each year. Nope! The exact same figure is dropped at the beginning of The Strangers, and – spoiler alert – violent crime rates have changed since 2008. In fact, they’ve significantly improved. The filmmakers may excuse this fear-mongering by saying that Chapter 1 is supposed to be a prequel to The Strangers, but it’s not. It can’t be, unless the characters in the original film have been officially retconned as weird hipsters who use outdated technology. This movie contains product placement for a smartphone banking app. The plot hinges on the existence of Airbnb!

Then there are the scary locals – or should I say yokels? This movie is so unflattering to rural Americans that it could make the “rednexploitation” films of the 1970s jealous. And for what? The home invaders are the real threat here, and they’re not motivated by class resentment. They’re not motivated by anything. That’s the entire point of the franchise.

Dubious social messages aside, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is a merely serviceable horror film. There are some tense moments and plenty of jump scares, but they’re undercut by a frustrating script. Petsch, who is also an executive producer, tries her scream queen best but falls flat. It doesn’t help that she’s playing one of the stupidest horror protagonists in recent memory. If you can’t stand to watch people in horror movies follow weird noises or poke their heads out of ax-torn holes in the wall, then you’re really going to hate Maya and Ryan.

Even if you muscle through all the preposterous writing, there’s not much payoff. All of the good stuff is completely ripped from the original film, right down to a stranger asking if Tamara is home and unscrewing one of the porch lights. I would say that The Strangers: Chapter 1 picks its best bits from The Strangers like a murderer looting a corpse, but that might imply that there’s something even remotely interesting about this mind-numbing reboot.

Although it’s rated R, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Strangers: Chapter 1 received a PG-13. There’s just the barest hint of sexuality, scant use of the F-bomb, and hardly any bloodshed. That makes this great sleepover fare, especially considering Petsch got her big break as Cheryl Blossom on Riverdale. Serious horror fans and those old enough to remember the first film, beware.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 might freak you out if you aren’t old enough to remember The Strangers.

This film’s flaws would feel less glaring if the superior The Strangers: Prey at Night didn’t exist. Sadly for Harlin and friends, Johannes Roberts’ 2018 sequel to The Strangers blows this mess out of the water, offering a novel setting, more dynamic protagonists, and a climactic sequence set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I’d happily take two more of those. Instead, we’ve got this – and The Strangers: Chapter 1 is the first film in a Petsch-led trilogy. Please join me in hoping that we can only go up from here.


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