The Strangers Chapter 1 Review: Why Are You Doing This To Us? I'm Seriously Asking

When Bryan Bertino unleashed "The Strangers" onto the world in 2008, I doubt he could have predicted what a phenomenon the story and characters would become. The first-time feature film director took inspiration from the senseless violence that plagues so many people, and a real-life encounter as a child where vandals were randomly knocking on doors in his neighborhood and breaking into houses if no one was home. The terrifying "point" of "The Strangers" was that there was no point. The Man in the Mask, Pin-Up Girl, and Dollface killed Kristen and James because, as Dollface horrifically admits, "because you were home." Alas, with such phenomenal character designs and a cult-like following, "The Strangers" was destined to get the horror franchise treatment. The sequel film "The Strangers: Prey at Night" arrived 10 years after the original, and was surprisingly well received. Unfortunately, the three killers were killed by the film's final girl, effectively destroying the possibility of any sequels.

Enter: "The Strangers: Chapter 1," the result of your momma telling you "We have 'The Strangers' at home."

Directed by genre favorite (and sequel king) Renny Harlin and written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, "The Strangers: Chapter 1" is the first of a new reboot trilogy doubling as a prequel within the same continuity of the first two films. It's a bold strategy to plan a three-picture story (although it has worked before like with the "Fear Street" trilogy), and the results thus far are frustrating. For casual horror fans, this is a perfectly acceptable slasher with some fun moments of tension and well-paced scares, but diehard horror fans are going to be severely disappointed by this paint-by-numbers slasher that fundamentally misunderstands what made the original film such a phenomenon.

A slasher starring characters with anti-survival skills

The film follows a young couple named Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) traveling cross-country before Maya's job interview with a company that would change both of their lives. The pair wind up in the small town of Venus, Oregon off the highway — the type of "we have a mechanic and a diner and nothing else" joint that might as well be named "Harbinger." The vibes in the town are immediately off, because rather than allow the terror of "The Strangers" to exist on its own, the movie strangely elects to imply there might be some sort of town-wide conspiracy. Perhaps this will play out in the latter installments but for the first film, it feels like a page pulled from the Horror Movie 101 handbook.

The locals immediately judge these city slickers for being unmarried after five years and for Maya's vegetarianism, but once they discover their car suddenly won't start and the mechanic conveniently arrives offering to fix it, I actively felt myself disassociate for a solid five minutes because of how foolish our protagonists behaved. Plenty of horror movies have characters make stupid decisions in the heat of the moment, but this is a film that expects me to believe a hot white lady in 2024 with metallic nail polish hasn't seen a "Stay Sexy, Don't Get Murdered" infographic on Instagram and therefore:

  1. Doesn't think it's weird that their car is magically busted.
  2. Has no problem staying overnight at a random Airbnb in the woods because the local motel "happens to be closed for repairs."
  3. Is more than willing to let the random waitress they just met drive them to said second location.
  4. Is not the one catching all of these red flags when her boyfriend does.

Yeah, no.

That thing you like from the first movie but not

It's odd that "The Strangers: Chapter 1" is advertising itself as set in the same universe as the prior films, considering how many things are lifted completely from the 2008 film. It opens with a narration about crime statistics, there's an ominous 911 call, there are bike-riding evangelists in white shirts (but now they're creeeeeepy), the couple is together but not married (but in this case, they're just millennials unwilling to commit in this unstable society), they fool around only to be interrupted by someone knocking and asking if Tamara is home, they play Joanna Newsom's "Sprout and the Bean" on a record player, the boyfriend adjusts the lightbulb of the porch light to turn it on, the boyfriend leaves at one point to head into town so the girlfriend is left alone with the killers, the killers' truck is used as a weapon, they struggle in the woods, and the couple even accidentally shoot an innocent person who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's homage and there's reference and then there's ... this. I doubt casual movie fans will notice or care, but for horror fans and fans of the original movie, it's impossible to ignore.

And the things the film elects to change don't hit as hard. Dollface keeps doing creepy sing-songy things instead of outright saying "You're gonna die," the change from "because you were home" to "because you were here" doesn't have the same impact, the Man in the Mask's looking more like sackhead Jason from "Friday the 13th Part II" is less scary without the uncanny brightness of the original, and the lack of daylight during the film's climax does the story a grave disservice. Both the original film and "The Strangers: Chapter 1" have the exact same runtime, but with how much time the new film spends setting up the creepiness of the town, it dilutes the horror.

Relying on tropes that the story doesn't need

As a slasher flick removed from its source material, "The Strangers: Chapter 1" is perfectly fine. The tone is weird and ominous, the reveal of the Man in the Mask is a quality jump scare, the audio stings and lighting-induced jump scares are perfectly paced, and there will undoubtedly be plenty who spend the runtime stuck to the edge of their seats in panic. Is it formulaic? Yes, but when it comes to slashers, the formula works and has continued to work for a reason. This is a solid date-night outing at the movies, and Madelaine Petsch is acting her ass off even if the material doesn't understand women. Unfortunately for Froy Gutierrez, she's acting circles around him, but that's par for the course with most slashers — the final girl reigns supreme.

But "The Strangers" didn't need these horror tropes to become a sensation, so it's very odd to see them shoehorned into this new trilogy. "The Strangers: Prey at Night" incorporated more traditional slasher elements in the sequel, but took so many other wild swings that it felt like its own unique take. This feels like someone took 2008's "The Strangers" out of the freezer, threw it directly into the microwave, and wants us to think it's still fresh. And it's frustrating because Petsch is a fantastic lead, and Harlin knows how to direct the hell out of a horror movie, but it's one that feels like the antithesis of what made the franchise so compelling in the first place.

Here's hoping "Chapter 2" and "3" can better present the forest for the trees, because right now this franchise is knocking but nobody's home.

/News Rating: 4.5 out of 10