It’s Just Like Starting Over with The Strangers: Chapter 1

Movies Reviews Renny Harlin
It’s Just Like Starting Over with The Strangers: Chapter 1

The Strangers, Bryan Bertino’s 2008 home-invasion slasher picture, takes clear inspiration from horror classics like the original, pre-franchise incarnations of Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – now-lofty influences, to be sure, and ones that the often brilliantly creepy and sometimes monotonous movie can’t quite live up to. (But then, what can?) The obvious corresponding thing to say about The Strangers: Chapter 1, Renny Harlin’s 2024 home-invasion slasher picture, is that it takes clear inspiration from The Strangers. And it does; it’s one of those revisitations that includes a story credit from the original filmmaker, not because Bertino was involved in the production, but because it repeats too much of the structure and main ideas from his movie to deny him. But the weirder inspiration for Chapter 1 is Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, which were rescued from Fox development to become a weekly new-release event in 2021. Chapter 1 isn’t just a hopeful subtitle; three new Strangers movies have been written and shot, and all of them will release within a year. (Chapter 2 is expected in the fall, with Chapter 3 wrapping things up – or will it?! – in early 2025.)

For the time being, this makes the most recent Strangers also the least new. The filmmakers clearly see Chapter 1 as a necessary re-introduction to a very simple concept: A young couple, Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are staying in a home, not their own, in a somewhat remote location. In the original, it’s a family summer home after an out-of-town wedding; in this version, it’s an Airbnb pit-stop when their car breaks down during a cross-country move. Both couples hear an unexpected knock at the door in the middle of the night, and answer it to find a young woman standing in shadow asking, in an eerily affectless voice, for Tamara. Gently rebuffed, the woman eventually returns as part of a masked trio, who lurk outside the house, and then inside the house. Then, even worse things happen, as the couple is terrorized through a single hellish night.

The Strangers in all its forms is essentially a slasher movie that holds back on the slashing (though the sequel to the original, 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, features a menaced family, with a twisted opportunity to up to the body count). Maya and Ryan go through the ritual: They run and hide; they attempt to escape, and scrounge around for ways to fight back. The Strangers keep coming, their success a combination of bad luck and psychological warfare.

There are times, though, in both the 2008 movie and in Chapter 1, where the masked figures seem a little bit too ubiquitous, considering that they don’t have any kind of hulking campfire-tale mythology puffing them up to even original-recipe Michael Myers proportions. They’re not so unknowable as The Shape, though you get the feeling they’d like to be. There’s even a whiff of theater-kid insufferability to their looming-silence antics – a refusal to break character that’s creepy at first, until it gets annoyingly contrived: Does no one truly ever try to just beat the hell out of their silent, not particularly muscular opponents? If they’re just chillingly anonymous people, why do they appear to have done breathing exercises, training themselves never to make a sound even during sloppy tussles?

Regrettably, The Strangers: Chapter 1 has a shorter path to that annoyance. How could it not, repeating the story from the first one, with most of its tweaks nudging the material closer to familiarity? (The trilogy plan has meant that the filmmakers are shying away from calling it a remake, but that’s very much what this first part is.) The car breakdown adds some scenes of city folk catching the uncomfortable ire of country folk, which is either time-killing misdirection or a pale knockoff of better horror movies. (Maybe that’s something we get to find out in Chapter 2: Just how derivative this series is going to be.) Maya and Ryan are a happy couple this time; Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, in the first incarnation, were a couple whose just-offscreen strife cast an appropriately doomy and hushed pall over the proceedings before the bad guys started appearing in the background of the frame.

On the plus side, Petsch makes for a plucky scream queen, and Harlin, who previously stepped into the Nightmare on Elm Street and Exorcist series, shoots the movie with his professional slickness. Chapter 1 has more scenes in the forest surrounding the besieged home, and Harlin uses low-angle shots to grow a little natural stylization out of an otherwise close-to-the-ground movie. Most tantalizing and most frustrating, The Strangers: Chapter 1 ends in a way that is, yes, quite familiar and, double yes, did make me want to see the next one. Mission accomplished? Younger horror fans who haven’t caught up with the earlier films may well receive this one as a perfectly creepy little genre exercise, and there are moments where it plays that way even to a more experienced audience (something that couldn’t be said of those Fear Street movies). It’s even possible that any variations in the next two movies will be more satisfying taking off from this retread. Until then, though, The Strangers: Chapter 1 defers any broader meaning, and its creeping dread mostly moves in a circle.

Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland
Starring: Madelaine Petsch, Froy Guiterrez
Release Date: May 17, 2024

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including GQ, Decider, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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