The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024)

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Directed by Renny Harlin

Bryan Bertino’s instantly iconic 2008 hit The Strangers is a simple but effective horror: the stuff of nightmares. Basically, a couple gets tormented and later killed (not a spoiler – we know from the first scene) by three masked intruders whose only motivation is they were home. A decade later, an unexpected sequel, Prey At Night, provided a respectable follow-up that reimagined the home invasion as a straight slasher. Now the Strangers come knocking again with the first of a new trilogy – all directed by Renny Harlin – the man behind such maligned sequels as Die Hard 2, Elm Street 4, and Exorcist The Beginning. It’s an unsuccessful attempt to reboot a franchise you never knew you didn’t want relaunched.

The set-up is almost a remake: a man and a woman, who won’t lock the windows or backdoor, get terrorised by three people wearing masks. This time, our couple are Maya (Petsch) and Ryan (Gutierrez), who are meant to be celebrating their fifth anniversary. Crucially, this is five years as an unmarried couple – much to the disapproval of Maya, along with the staff and customers of the small-town diner representing their last links to civilization. Unfortunately, they experience car trouble, though fortunately, there’s an Airbnb (aka “an internet house”) they can stay at in the woods – a hunting lodge that’s deserted for most of the year. After half an hour or so of door-knocks, interrupted sex, lingering shots from outside later, and items being moved they realise they aren’t alone.

The major beats are identical, down to the guy going out for a badly timed jaunt and then trying to convince his partner that nobody is there. To be fair, the opening act, which telegraphs things we may see in the sequels, is tonally awkward but still sets the scene reasonably well. We get a sense of the characters’ isolation, and while the small town of Venus is far from comforting, and its inhabitants are most likely complicit in the action, it’s nice to see some world-building. More importantly, the time spent establishing Maya and Ryan’s relationship gives a much-needed emotional buy-in. Still, while Petsch (who is building a CV for fairly average horror films) does a solid individual performance, I wasn’t entirely sold on the leads’ chemistry together. Most of their scenes together lean too far into jokes around the same few topics, and their questions about their future lack the tension of James and Kristen the first time around. Still, this is arguably where the movie peaks, and as the signature thumps happen I was even quite excited to hear Dollface ask for Tamara.

I lost interest very early in the second half when the three masked killers went from being a hypothetical threat to something more concrete. Watching big daddy stranger peek at Maya as she showers or plays piano before vanishing into the ether feel like a dull retread. Granted, there’s perhaps a double standard by which horror fans will accept derivative slasher films but not other sub-genres. However, I think the difference is that slasher sequels tend to up the fun factor: personalising the conflict more or making the kills bigger. On that, for a film that proudly advertises its events as being among the most violent crimes, it’s incredibly tame, seldom rising to the level of frankness or intensity of its competitors. Instead, when the trio finally attacks, it takes the form of a preposterous reveal followed by long, repetitive chase scenes.

Part of this comes down to the basics. The house is less well-realised than the location of either predecessor, lacking the all-important grand tour shots to sell it as a real place. Moreover, the sequences in the woods are too poorly lit to be effective. It’s not that Harlin is a hack – he evidently knows what he’s doing. But he lacks Bertino’s patience for constructing a scare or his eye for framing. It doesn’t help that much of the script relies on the protagonists (and, to be fair, the titular antagonists) making baffling errors in judgment. I’m not going to pretend I’d be entirely rational in their shoes, cooly juxtaposing my different options. Still, I like to think I’d be more cautious than they are with their constant loud noises and inability to scan a room even after weird things have gone on in it. An incredibly distracting product placement also borders on parody, raising a financial complication dealt with via ten seconds on an app.

To be clear, it isn’t a terrible film and not close to as bad as ten seconds on the Twitter hashtag would have you believe. And were this the first we’d seen of these characters or this world, then I think it’d be quite an encouraging start to a franchise. But those other movies exist, making it a mostly unnecessary reboot of a property that benefitted from a less is more approach. Something that the post-credit sequence and a bit towards the start suggests might be abandoned next time around – perhaps for the betterment of the series. Still, for now, this is more like the familiars.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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About david.s.smith 456 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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