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The Strangers: Chapter 1 review: a dull horror retread

Two masked killers stand near a truck in The Strangers: Chapter 1.
The Strangers: Chapter 1
“The Strangers: Chapter 1 is a disappointing follow-up to its franchise's first installment.”
  • Madelaine Petsch's all-in lead performance
  • One genuinely unnerving, tense sequence
  • A formulaic, frustratingly familiar script
  • An overly convoluted first act
  • A story that adds astonishingly little to what's come before it

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is as confusing as it is underwhelming. The film, an attempt to cash in further on the success of director Bryan Bertino’s 2008 horror hit The Strangers, has been sold as the latest installment in a franchise that has never fully capitalized on the success of its first entry.

Does that mean Chapter 1 is a sequel to The Strangers? Or a prequel? Its title and the trailer’s tagline (“Witness how the strangers became the strangers”) would suggest that it’s the latter, but its protagonists’ decidedly modern smartphones and a passing mention of Airbnb place its story many years after its 2008 predecessor. Some may consider that nitpicking, but it points to just how little thought seems to have gone into the conception and making of The Strangers: Chapter 1.

There’s a half-baked feeling to the movie that not only renders it largely ineffective, but also makes it feel, at times, insultingly lazy. In fact, whether it’s a sequel or a prequel doesn’t matter because the film borrows so much from the original Strangers that it feels more like a remake than a follow-up of any kind. While it delivers a few moments of genuine tension and dread, The Strangers: Chapter 1 never comes close to replicating the disturbing magic of Bertino’s breakout horror hit. The new film polishes away the unsteady, rough-and-ready nature of that now-iconic, late 2000s home invasion thriller and, in doing so, loses the intimate, grounded power that makes The Strangers still so unnerving to this day.

Maya sits with Ryan in The Strangers: Chapter 1.
John Armour / Lionsgate

In what is one of its only major deviations from its 2008 predecessor, The Strangers: Chapter 1 follows two characters who aren’t on the verge of potentially breaking up with each other, but whose relationship seems stronger than ever. When the film begins, Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) aren’t sitting in the uncomfortable aftermath of a failed marriage proposal, but playfully finding ways to kill time as they near the end of a multiday drive to Oregon. Their journey takes an unexpected turn when Ryan takes a detour through an off-the-radar, small backwoods town and they subsequently find themselves stranded with a car that won’t start.

Whereas The Strangers wastes little time establishing its leads’ straightforward circumstances, Chapter 1 spends most of its first act predictably trapping Ryan and Maya in a familiar horror movie situation. Unable to resume their drive, the two are forced to spend the night at an Airbnb in the middle of the woods, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re being stalked, taunted, and attacked — like Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s Kristen and James in The Strangers — by three mysterious masked killers. Behind the camera, director Renny Harlin pays homage to multiple iconic moments from Chapter 1‘s parent film, while Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland pack their script to the brim with twists and details that are also pulled directly from it.

Maya and Ryan’s palpable love for each other adds a different shade of tragedy to the events of Chapter 1, but the thriller remains so slavishly devoted to The Strangers‘ original structure and plot that their relationship doesn’t alter the movie all that much in the end. The film stretches out its killers’ gradual invasion longer than its predecessor, and it’s in the early stages of Chapter 1‘s second act that it manages to find the time for entirely new gags and instances of bone-chilling tension. However, the movie ultimately sticks to the same general path as The Strangers and borrows so many of that film’s biggest dramatic beats that the tension it builds prior to Maya and Ryan’s realization of their situation inevitably dissipates once you realize exactly how indebted Chapter 1 is to a horror movie that came out over 15 years ago.

Maya peers into a kitchen in The Strangers: Chapter 1.
John Armour / Lionsgate

To make matters worse, The Strangers: Chapter 1 doesn’t pull off nearly as many of its biggest moments as well as the film that it steals so much from. Harlin, for instance, visually reveals the presence of the film’s killers in Ryan and Maya’s Airbnb with a quick shot of a masked intruder walking in front of the camera while Maya stands unaware with her back to them. It’s a much showier shot than the one that serves the exact same purpose in The Strangers, in which a masked intruder silently emerges in the shadows behind an unaware Liv Tyler. Unfortunately, the more pronounced nature of the reveal makes it considerably less stomach-churning and quietly unsettling. The same is true of the film itself, which abandons the lived-in, handheld aesthetic of The Strangers in favor of a flashier and less artful approach.

There are moments when Chapter 1 delivers on the terrifying promise of its initial trailers. A section early on when Maya is left alone to be unexpectedly stalked and terrorized by her oft-unseen attackers uses a series of well-calculated sound design choices and ominous point of view shots to create a sense of impending doom that briefly becomes suffocating. Although The Strangers: Chapter 1 doesn’t have many memorable characters to offer and is slightly dragged down by Gutierrez’s stiff performance, Petsch gives an impressively committed, unrestrained turn as Maya that makes it easy to root for her — even when she’s making mistakes and illogical decisions that should leave most horror fans alternately laughing and rolling their eyes.

A masked killer stands in a forest in The Strangers: Chapter 1.
John Armour / Lionsgate

In The Strangers: Chapter 1‘s closing minutes, the film finally pushes itself and its franchise into relatively new territory. Its most interesting twist is cut short by a “to be continued” title card, though, which sets up the releases of the two, already shot sequels that Chapter 1, unfortunately, doesn’t garner enough goodwill to generate any excitement for. It’s a movie that adds so little to what’s already come before it that it leaves one confused why it was even made in the first place — let alone envisioned as the opening installment of a new trilogy. Whatever good ideas The Strangers: Chapter 1 might have had end up buried beneath a pile of recycled moments and images, most of which only serve to remind you how inferior it is to the film that it borrows half of its title and far, far more from.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is now playing in theaters.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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