THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER ONE – Middling Horror in Search of a Point

Horror fans are in no way above watching the same repeated tropes and scenarios in movie after movie. Hell, we luxuriate in it, taking care to note the rhythms of every sequel and remake we see, not just so we can spot what’s original in these retellings, but so we can follow along like the demented devotees we are.

What I’m getting at here is that there’s nothing wrong with rebooting The Strangers movies, even if it has only been less than two decades since Bryan Bertino’s nightmarish debut feature presented its chilling tale of home invasion and anonymous violence. The Strangers: Prey at Night proved how malleable the concept could be, how much fun we could still have with the idea of these three masked figures and their stop-at-nothing approach to mayhem, and the promise that director Renny Harlin and writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland are after something bigger with a planned trilogy only adds to the intrigue. So what if the basic conceptual hook is the same across two movies? We love a horror remake, so bring it on!

Sadly, while horror fans might come to The Strangers: Chapter 1 with open-minded enthusiasm, the film they’ll find waiting for them is too staid and paint-by-numbers to really create a spark. A tame remake at its best and a timid facsimile at worst, it loses the bite of the earlier films in the franchise, and leaves us hoping that Chapter 2 will deliver something bigger and better.

You know the basic setup if you’ve seen The Strangers. This time around the couple is Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez), a lovely and lovable pair who are traveling to the Pacific Northwest to start a new life thanks to Maya’s growing career. Along the way, their car breaks down in a standoffish little town in Oregon, leaving them with no choice but to spend the night in a quaint little rental home in the middle of nowhere. The couple sets in for the night, and then there’s a knock on the door, a request to speak to someone who isn’t there. This strange encounter soon blooms into a night of violence, and Maya and Ryan have to fight for their lives as three masked strangers try to inflict maximum terror and pain on the couple.

What we’re working with here is, as the trailers for the film have made plain, basically a remake of Bertino’s 2008 film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, with a few key differences. There’s still tension between the couple, but it’s for different reasons, and the house they’re trapped in is a completely alien space to them, as is the surrounding town. Beyond that, though, we’re basically looking at a reboot that retraces Bertino’s steps via Harlin’s steadfast direction.

Harlin’s a pro, even when his films don’t turn out great, so it’s not at all surprising that Chapter 1 is at least a competent movie, most of the time. Petsch and Gutierrez do their best to commit fully to the premise, and they mostly succeed, while Harlin’s pacing and camerawork are, if not revelatory, then at least in focus, decently timed, and interesting. There are no grave sins against filmmaking here, which only makes it more frustrating when the film goes on and you start to realize there’s not much of anything here.

To its credit, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is at least trying to do something other than a rote recreation of what Bertino and company already did so well, and when it’s really reaching for something new, there are glimmers of promise. The setpieces that don’t borrow too heavily from the original film (and there are setpieces here that flat-out copy entire shots from Bertino’s movie) are interesting and often fun to watch, and more importantly there’s an effort to lay out connective tissue that will eventually form parts of a larger story. When the film’s doing that, dialing up the paranoia of Maya and Ryan as they deal with standoffish locals, it’s interesting and even promising. But the film is so focused on trying to remind you why you like The Strangers in the first place that it’s often little more than a semi-convincing copy. 

All of this means that Chapter 1 in this ambitious new Strangers saga doesn’t amount to much, but it does at least lay the groundwork for more stories. Horror fans will show up for familiar tropes, after all, which means we’re also always happy to see if a sequel does better than its predecessors. Maybe when Chapter 2 arrives, this will all feel worth it.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is in theaters May 17.

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