‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Review: A Horror Bust

The Strangers: Chapter 1 Review

What do you get when you combine a laundry list of horror movie clichés with writing and directing that fundamentally misunderstands its own source material while clinging to the assertion that horror is the sum of its worst tropes? Well.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is a 2024 American horror film directed by Renny Harlin (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4) and written by Alan Cohen and Alan Freedland (King of the Hill, Due Date). Serving as the next instalment in the puzzling continuation of the home invasion cinematic universe built upon The Strangers (2008), Chapter 1 is not a prequel, sequel, or reboot. No, this is apparently a three-part “relaunch” (see: reboot) of the franchise. The first entry, however, suggests that it might be worth closing the book early.

Opening the film is a customary first kill. We’re shown a man desperately running for his life in the woods only to trip and fall. His life is then extinguished by the axe-wielding ‘Scarecrow’, the male figure of the murderous trio. Serving absolutely no purpose other than to remind the audience that they are in fact watching a horror movie, we are then treated to the beginning of the film.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 review

Maya, played by Madelaine Petsch, and her boyfriend Ryan, played by Froy Gutierrez, are driving across the country, having conversations written by ChatGPT. Through a painful lack of chemistry, yet somehow both strangely likeable on their own, it’s explained that Maya and Ryan are driving to Portland, Oregon, celebrating their fifth year together. It is here that the opportunity arises to include a jump scare, timed perfectly to avoid the audience pondering which aisle of the beige paint store these two met in five years ago. A car veers into their lane, causing Ryan to manoeuvre away. Just like the plot, the couple are momentarily halted. It is here we discover Ryan is asthmatic, going into a minor attack from the stress of the near miss.

The couple inevitably gets lost, stopping in a small town. At a diner the immediately unfriendly and frankly cartoonish locals harangue the big city couple, making them feel uneasy. Here they also spot the ‘missing’ poster of the man killed in the prologue. All is not right in this small town it would seem. Their push-button-start BMW then breaks down in the diner car park (no, seriously, that’s what happens.) The town’s unnecessarily creepy mechanic agrees to fix their car, but the part won’t be available until the next morning. The couple are then forced to stay the night in a local Airbnb, secluded in the woods.

The plot then parallels the original film. A creepy girl appears at the door asking for Tamara and is turned away but returns repeatedly. Following an absurdly written dinner scene involving a burger and sauce that make it hard to believe the couple have ever had sex, let alone been together for five years, the masked trio break down the door and the film everyone was waiting for gets underway.

What follows is a combination of tropes, plot conveniences, and laughably telegraphed moments exposed by poor direction, uninspired writing, and a refusal to instil any sense of care for the protagonists. Stumbling and bumbling through its runtime, the film successfully eradicates the necessary element all horror films require—fear—and replaces it with boredom.

Now, I love horror. I love its ridiculous, gratuitous, exploitative nature and its unrelentingly situational tropes. As a young kid renting videos at Blockbuster and Video Ezy, I would pick stacks of old “weekly” horrors over “nightly” new releases. With bundles of B-grade trash about murderous snowmen and leprechauns, my weekends were full of cheap indulgences into the worst horror films ever made. So, I understand the appeal of schlock.

Despite A24’s modernisation and global rebrand of elevated neo-horror, when I hold the ticket to a horror film in my hand I accept a thin plot as a vehicle to the good stuff. Forking over that hard-earned money necessitates that a horror film must serve up a level of gore, fright, or tension in exchange. Even the cheap ones understand that and always have. The Strangers: Chapter 1, however, took my money and gave me nothing. Acting more like a parody of the genre than a horror film itself, director Renny Harlin was reportedly confused by audiences laughing at the first Tribeca screening. If that isn’t a sign that the wrong temperature was taken, I don’t know what is.

The original film was a nihilistic, tension-filled slow burn that felt real and raw. Prey at Night (2018), despite its many flaws, attempted to expand the franchise into a more traditionally framed slasher with fun kills and a bigger world to explore. Chapter 1, however, attempts to merge both the tension of the original with the expanded scope of the second while somehow offering only the worst of both films.

The film also isn’t helped by the main characters never feeling like real people. At every turn, these characters consistently make you consider applying for MENSA with poor choices and brain-dead actions. Awkward relationship dialogue also stands out as particularly egregious, even for a horror film. Considering the connection of the couple is supposed to make us care for them, it sadly fails miserably, reducing the would-be tension of their possible doom to pure slack. By the time the film hits its crescendo, my feelings towards both the main characters and the film were mirrored. Can’t you just finish it off already?

The performance by Madelaine Petsch as Maya in spite of the material, is honestly the best part of the film. With dialogue akin to prequel-era Star Wars, she deserves praise for the performance on display. Petsch carrying the franchise is arguably the only positive to be taken by the continuation of the trilogy. On the flip side, Ryan just never has enough to do and is just sort of there. I can’t blame Gutierrez; he isn’t bad. It’s just that what he’s given is far from good.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is written as though it needs a hit of Ryan’s asthma puffer to inject a well-worn trope into its lungs in five-minute intervals. From tripping in the woods to the villains car appearing out of nowhere and monologuing with a gun too long, it’s all so tired and predictable. Without any of the fun that should be given in exchange, this feels like a movie you’ve seen before, only a much worse version.

Things that happen in this film also don’t matter. Ryan’s asthma is never an inconvenience, despite it being introduced in the first five minutes of the film. His return to get his apparently necessary puffer proves only to ensure Maya can be alone in the house and make use of a jump scare. Outside of one convenient scene in the woods that disregards how asthma works, you could remove it as a plot point entirely and nothing really changes. This is true for the injuries the couple receives and a certain death scene halfway through. This becomes a recurring theme in the writing, leading to an unbelievable amount of setups that are never paid off, or things that happen that don’t really mean anything at all. This leaves the audience with a film that, at its core, is wholly unsatisfying.

This may be the result of being the first part in a three-part series. That is no excuse however, to make a film this poor. If your intention is to invite us into the world two more times, why make it so unsatisfying? Instead of starting with a three-part series, maybe it should be justified why it can’t be wrapped up in one, just as the original was.

Sadly, the elements for a perfectly serviceable horror film and series are all here. A serviceable cast with a likeable leading lady, frightening villains, and wonderfully shot visuals. Somewhere along the way, however, a script that indulges the tropes over the uniqueness of the original film became more important. The Strangers: Chapter 1 has begun a series with the suggestion that there isn’t much more to be offered here, and what will remain in the following two films are the last drops wrung out of near dried cloth.

Marconi is known as the inventor of the radio, despite Nikola Tesla first filing his patent for it three years earlier. Tesla is said to have remarked, “let him have it, he’s using 17 of my patents.” Don’t get confused. What I’m suggesting is that horror as a genre can thrive on the sum of what’s been done before. It always has. The internals of a film can be almost identical, but to take those pieces and give us something even slightly new is all that is needed in the horror realm. Usually, it’s just a new killer with a different bag on their head. That can be the same for a film within its own series.

This film, however, includes every cliché it can muster, stealing the plot of the first film beat for beat and somehow making it worse, while adding nothing new, scary, tense, or brutal to The Strangers catalogue. It even goes so far as to ruin the infamous line “Because you were home”. Like an AM radio masquerading as 4K streaming, it does nothing innovative with its premise. It simply fails to do anything with a well-worked setup that in the hands of any halfway decent writer and director should be an easy slam dunk. Harlin’s directorial background in The Nightmare on Elm Street series and to a lesser degree, Die Hard 2, make this output all the more puzzling. Although the recent Halloween franchise suggests that maybe a trilogy based on an existing property is harder to pull off than first assumed, even with a director whose work has exceeded in sequel territory.

As a horror tragic, I will show up to Chapter 2 and 3 and likely complain. For those un-afflicted with such a compulsion though, I think it’s best to leave these ones on the shelf.

Fun Fact:

Renny Harlin simultaneously filmed all three films of this trilogy. The producer explained that the lead star would film scenes for the first film in the morning and scenes for the second in the afternoon, commuting to many different locations for filming several times a day.

The Strangers: Chapter 1
The Strangers: Chapter 1 is full of tired horror cliches and tropes; an uninspired reboot that fails to make a mark on the beloved genre.
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Afflicted with a terminal love of movies from a young age Pace/I is a film snob in remission. Having found what he loves, he writes about it (because his girlfriend doesn’t care). My desert island films might make some eyes roll, but it would have to be Tarantino's collection, otherwise, Her by Spike Jonze or Stephen’s Kings prison adaptions The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile!


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