There's One Thing You Need To Know About The Strangers: Chapter 1 Before You See It

Back in the Old Days, sequels and franchises used to be anathema in Hollywood. The conventional wisdom was that no audience wanted to see more of a story that had already reached its conclusion, and that a "part two" or more didn't make as much money at the box office as an original work did.

Except, that is, within the horror genre. Universal Pictures discovered pretty early on in cinema's history that audiences would be down with seeing their spooky pals on screen as much as possible, and thus Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and others made return visits in the '30s and '40s. However, each of these sequels sought to be as unique as possible, with very few merely rehashing what had come before, and the concept of continuity or lore was essentially tossed aside at will.

Now we live in a cinematic age where IP rules the day, and it's rare to see too many features at the multiplex that aren't a sequel, remake or reboot. In 2024, thanks especially to the success of "Kill Bill" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" 20-odd years ago, Hollywood has learned that they can split one particularly long film into two (or more) separate movies, thus inventing a film that looks like a sequel and makes money like a sequel even if it doesn't quite function like one. The latest version of this phenomenon is "The Strangers: Chapter 1," and as that title indicates, there's one thing you need to know about it: it's the first film of three that allegedly tells one single story. Even though that subtitle is staring people in the face, it may not be clear to audiences that this first chapter will not be a satisfyingly conclusive experience.

The Strangers and the trouble with (and of) sequels

On paper, "The Strangers: Chapter 1" shouldn't confuse anyone. After all, we've been through several instances of a single story split into separate films, most recently with this year's highly well-received "Dune: Part Two." There are two factors that make the "To Be Continued" title card at the close of "Chapter 1" unique, however. One is that, unlike "Harry Potter," "Dune" or even the upcoming film version of the Broadway musical "Wicked," "The Strangers" isn't being adapted from a particular pre-existing story, but is rather based upon prior films, much like a regular sequel would be. Another is that the horror genre is no stranger to sequels, and given that this movie finishes in a fashion that's very familiar to slasher fans, it wouldn't be hard for people to assume that this is just another sequel, like 2018's "Prey At Night," despite the "Chapter 1" branding. In other words, the cliffhanger to this movie isn't enough to clue people in that there's more coming.

Yet that may be something the film's studio, Lionsgate, and other major studios in Hollywood are deliberately trying to obfuscate. Even though most Hollywood executives salivate over the notion of IP these days, realizing it can be not only a guaranteed ticket purchase for a pre-existing fanbase but also can mean sequels and/or a cinematic universe, they simultaneously know that audiences have become used to deciding whether they'll go to the cinema right away or wait. Thus, if they know that "The Strangers" is a part one of three rather than just another, self-contained entry in the series, they might hold off. If that's the case, it may end up backfiring on them if people are too ill-prepared about the long game "The Strangers" is playing.

The Strangers isn't three distinct entries, but one long film split up

Perhaps that's why director Renny Harlin, who helms all of this new "Strangers" and has already shot the subsequent chapters 2 and 3, has been very vocal about how these films aren't intended as a new trilogy so much as one long story split up into three chapters. When I spoke to Harlin last October about the films, he explained how the initial script he was sent by writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland was around 280 pages long, and that he and producer Courtney Solomon had the idea to break the film up into sections:

"So I think what was really special about this was that it wasn't a case of, 'Let's make this remake of 'The Strangers,' see how it does, and then a couple of years later or something, three years later, we'll make a sequel' — the typical kind of a studio moneymaking mentality — but that the studio believed in this concept so much that when Courtney and I said, 'We want to make three of these, because we want to really explore this.' So if we just make a remake, it's kind of like, 'Oh, okay, they're riding on the original film and now they're just trying to cash in again with the same movie.' But we wanted to say, 'We want to explore this much deeper.' And the fact that the studio said, 'Yeah, we believe it. We believe in this script, and we believe in your vision,' was an extraordinary opportunity."

The future of The Strangers is still uncertain

Ultimately, the method of releasing "The Strangers" in this fashion may be too detrimental, especially as it's not clear from the film itself what's coming next, let alone that there's more. At least Harlin's filmmaking chops are on clear display in the film; even though it's fairly redundant, the movie has got some suspenseful slasher goodness in it. Harlin seemed to promise me that new territory lay ahead in the questions explored by the next two chapters:

"'Who were the Strangers? Why did they do this? Is this completely really random, or is there something behind this or at least some reasons why somebody is a senseless, horrible serial killer?' And maybe more than anything, exploring that if one of the characters, in this case, the main female character, played by Madelaine Petsch, if she lives through this, how does this experience of horrible senseless violence, how does it affect a person mentally and physically? And how do you continue with your life? The chance to explore that was just too much to pass."

Doubling down on the lengths this new "Strangers" may be going to, Harlin spoke with /News's Jacob Hall recently, and revealed an even more ambitious plan to put all the films together in the future:

"We plan, after all the three chapters have come out, we plan to release the whole four and a half hour odyssey as one movie and see who will last in the movie theater for four and a half hours and go through that atmosphere of dread for that long."

Who knows whether splitting "Strangers" up into several films was the right call, or whether Harlin and Lionsgate should've rolled the dice on a four-hour slasher in the first place. Like the Strangers themselves, it may be a lingering question that never has an answer.

"The Strangers: Chapter 1" is now playing in theaters.