The Strangers: Chapter 1 is the Worst Kind of Horror Spinoff

Everything that made The Strangers a standout horror flick is missing from Chapter 1.

Inverse Reviews

What sets Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers apart as a 2000s horror heavyweight? Maybe it’s the inescapable, all-too-real dread. The unstable camera tracking that adds panic. Or the unanswerable “whys” and suffocating fatalism that makes you question every existential paranoia about society. Whatever it may be, it’s everything that Renny Harlin’s The Strangers: Chapter 1 fails at.

A “new” venture into the ongoing Strangersverse (all films are confirmed as canon), Harlin’s film thinks it's "improving" on the original by filling in blanks that are blank for a reason, scrubbing away what The Strangers fans hold dear about Bertino’s remarkably revolting mirror to humanity. Instead, The Strangers: Chapter 1 mimics Bertino’s home invasion beats with far more rigidity than any ornamental homage. It’s a remake, and quite a flimsy remake. Writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland seek more than inspiration from The Strangers, which is a shame because they carelessly misunderstand what makes Bertino’s unquestionably superior post-9/11 horror flick a malicious powerhouse. The Strangers: Chapter 1 overexposes, underdelivers, and replaces despicable bleakness with formulaic predictability akin to The Strangers 2.0 (but worse).

Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez are the unlucky victimized couple in Harlin’s revamp. Traveling lovebirds Maya (Petsch) and Ryan (Gutierrez) find themselves stranded without transportation in Venus, Oregon, staying overnight at the only Airbnb in the roughly 400-population territory. There’s no failed proposal or tension between partners like in The Strangers, and plenty more backstory that paints Venus as a rural religious community where Maya and Ryan stick out like manicured thumbs. Everyone seems pleasant enough, and the rental home is quaintly serene — until masked psychopaths start tormenting the someday-newlyweds “because [they’re] here.”

The Strangers: Chapter 1 trades the leanest cut of hide-and-seek horror with something thicker and fattier, eliminating the point. Cohen and Freedland are obsessed with adding fruitless details, erasing that soul-gnawing spontaneity at the heart of The Strangers. The original’s inherent mysteriousness vanishes when assigning reason to character motivations or treating Maya and Ryan as stereotypical subgenre survivalists. The Strangers: Chapter 1 looks, operates, and underwhelms like thousands of horror movies you’ve seen before (which is disheartening). The Strangers weaponizes realizations about how bad things can happen anywhere without warning, and while Harlin tries to ride that same crushing wave, his project's numbing dedication to chasing the most generic break-in templates undercuts atmospheric tension.

Any direct comparisons between Strangers films highlight the insufficiencies of The Strangers: Chapter 1. Maya and Ryan are inorganically corny as protagonists, whereas Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman sell every droplet of paralytic fear. The Strangers is an excruciatingly moody showdown drenched in shadowy blackness, where Harlin’s presentation is impotently brighter. All the milestone standouts in The Strangers have their double in The Strangers: Chapter 1, landing with wobbly impacts that lack Bertino’s composure. If The Strangers: Chapter 1 wanted to avoid these comparative games, creators should have reached further outside the box versus the lackluster recreation tactics on display.

It’s painful to watch Harlin struggle to justify his second attempt at telling The Strangers because so many scenes lean into eye-roll-worthy tropes. “Scarecrow” is brazen when stalking Maya in close quarters versus his immaculate reveal behind Kristen McKay, shattering the illusion of stealth pursuit when nearly pressed against a transparent glass door separating him and his showering fixation. While darting around uncharted woodlands looking for Maya, Ryan's hero antics are begging for a quick defeat, spewing filler dialogue until his nemesis appears. Obstacles like Ryan’s dependency on his inhaler are conveniently forgotten for long stretches until they’re not, introducing contrived thoughtlessness into an expanded screenplay that refuses the simplistic effectiveness heralded in The Strangers. Harlin’s oversight is nowhere near as airtight, following basic thriller cues that are the antithesis of Bertino’s trademarks.

Madelaine Petsch as Maya in The Strangers: Chapter 1, same as the old Strangers.

John Armour/Lionsgate

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is a victim of its own making, even beyond its remake ineptitude. It’s the first of three parts, tracing someone else’s outline, hopefully reserving its best ideas for the second and third movies (releasing later this year). So not only have you seen this before, handled with drastically more terrifying results, but storytelling merely connects someone else’s dots because the filmmakers have something neat to show you a few months from now. There’s an underlying betrayal to the whole production, engaging in a wasteful experiment more interested in what happens later. The problem is, starting on such a downgraded note, Harlin doesn’t inspire confidence that Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 will redeem this fledgling remix.

With its limited standalone appeal, The Strangers: Chapter 1 regrettably cannot survive on its best material. José David Montero’s cinematography frames Scarecrow, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl with duplicated imposition, whether shrouded in dense forest mist or posed before their latest sacrifices. The incorporation of bloody messages is a creepy crimson touch, especially when red drips juxtapose against Ryan’s ketchupy-greasy hamburger runoff. The film opens Maya and Ryan’s escape routes to crawlspaces and redesigned sheds, and while that removes claustrophobia, it introduces other perils like errant nails waiting to puncture fleshy hands. These are the few flourishes that resemble creativity underneath the diminishing replay value, outmatched by shortcomings both self-imposed and execution based.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that 2016’s Cabin Fever is still the most egregiously nonsense remake in horror history for using Eli Roth’s original script with zero alterations. The Strangers: Chapter 1 is never that sinful, but it’s still too close for comfort and nowhere near as sensational. Harlin’s leadoff crack at his Strangers three-parter is a disappointing genre experience that feels fresh off an assembly line at the horror factory. It’s a middling and forgettable interpretation of a far savvier and sinister home invasion headliner, which stings worse than your run-of-the-mill mediocrity. Here’s hoping Chapter 2 is elevated with clever ideas, leaving these bland imitation games in the dumpster like a discarded corpse.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 opens in theaters May 17.

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