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Movie Review: “THE STRANGERS–CHAPTER 1” does not encourage further viewing

Thursday, May 16, 2024 | Reviews


Starring Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez
Directed by Renny Harlin
Written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland

It’s hard to say what demonstrates more hubris: The creators of the STRANGERS reboot conceiving and shooting it as a feature trilogy, in the can before the first one was even released, or making that initial entry an almost identical copy of Bryan Bertino’s modern-classic 2008 original (to the point where Bertino gets a story credit on it). THE STRANGERS–CHAPTER 1 represents the filmmakers asking you to pay full theater admission price for what is essentially a 91-minute prologue for the next two movies.

There are a few small setups for the expansion of the Strangersverse we’ve been promised in CHAPTERs 2 and 3, but even these are familiar from the Bertino film (a couple of creepy kids handing out religious tracts) or the rural horror genre in general (redneck locals leering menacingly at the outsiders who have found their way into town). After a prologue in which the hulking masked male Stranger (here billed as “Scarecrow”) dispatches an anonymous victim–since current audiences apparently can’t be trusted to ease into a storyline–we pick up with Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) on a cross-country drive to Oregon. They wind up in the remote burg of Venus, where a stop at the local diner winds up extended when their car won’t start once they try to leave. Turns out there’s a cabin where they can spend the night while waiting for their vehicle to get fixed, and it’s an attractively rustic enough place, so things could be worse. Then they are, as loud knocks on the door and a mysterious female figure asking, “Is Tamara here?” give way to a long night of violent attacks and pursuit.

Those first bits of odd and bad behavior will be familiar to anyone who has seen and been chilled by the ’08 STRANGERS, and so will pretty much everything that follows. Yes, the idea is for CHAPTER 1 to reintroduce the scenario while laying the groundwork for an expansion of its narrative and concepts, but did this one really have to echo its predecessor’s events so slavishly? Surely screenwriters Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland could have come up with some variations on the theme to keep the franchise’s fans engaged, but instead, this plays as if it was intended solely for an audience of 2024 teens who have never seen, or even heard of, its inspiration.

What they’ll get is a movie that lacks the ominous, brooding unease Bertino brought 16 years ago, capturing a very relatable fear of being terrorized in the deep of a dark night by figures with no apparent motivation and the ability to get into a locked house. While CHAPTER 1 director Renny Harlin gets some decent tension going here and there, there’s an unfortunate overreliance on jump-scares and a few key setpieces that don’t pay off properly. At one point, Maya and Ryan barricade themselves in a bedroom, and Scarecrow starts smashing the door down with an ax. He finishes hacking his way through as the couple cower in terror and then…he goes away. Toying with them? Sure, but the way the scene plays, it just seems as if he doesn’t finish the job then and there because if he did, the movie would be over before the hour mark.

Elsewhere, Maya and Ryan take a number of ill-advised actions and talk out loud when they should stay silent, which can make an audience feel more frustration than sympathy for them. The two leads do what they can within the constraints of the material, with Gutierrez especially challenged since Ryan is written to be kind of a patronizing jerk, both to Maya and to the backwoods folks they encounter. It all leads up to the same conclusion we saw in Bertino’s movie, and a variation on its blood-freezing final line, the answer to the heroine’s plea, “Why are you doing this to us?” But how can that line be expected to land the same way when we know we’re set to get two more movies answering that question?