The Strangers: Chapter One Review

A prequel (remake?) of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film, The Strangers, arrives in theatres today. When Lionsgate and Blumhouse announced this project, all I could think was, why? Not enough time has passed to justify a remake. The original was only a modest success financially. To head the project, Lionsgate hired Renny Harlin, of Cliffhanger fame. If it seems like Harlin is slumming it by remaking a horror feature, he did make his name in the genre. The results are hit-and-miss. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master was his big break. The Exorcist: The Beginning‘s terrible reception in 2004 resulted in his subsequent work going straight to DVD.

Listen, I’m not one to eviscerate every remake of a horror film. I enjoy several (The ThingThe CraziesLet Me In), but those films understood what they were adapting and what made the story compelling. Harlin could be one of the biggest fans of The Strangers, but while promoting the film, he said he hoped to “answer some of those questions that I think all of us who enjoyed the original were left wondering.” If explaining everything in the Star Wars prequels or Rob Zombie’s Halloween wasn’t enough of a warning not to do the same in other stories, Harlin and the team of writers missed the memo. What drove the suspense in Bertino’s original was the randomness and the severity of the attack on Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Explaining the origin and motivations of the strangers robs the tension driving a genre film like this.

There are already no stakes to the story at hand. We know what comes after has already been established. Spoilers, we also know Chapters Two and Three are coming and who is in them. And unlike 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, we don’t have ten years of nostalgia to see this IP again.

The story—a young couple left stranded in a small town after their car breaks down—could describe a plethora of forgettable films. The script comes from a hodgepodge team of writers whose filmographies are miscast here. Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, from King of the Hill and Due Date, get the formula of horror down, but scenes establishing the town and the couple are rote. Bucolic surroundings with abandoned houses and businesses? Diners filled with unfriendly locals? Kids who clam up immediately when asked simple questions? Suspicious sheriff (Richard Brake)? Check, check, check, and check. But the plucky and upbeat Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) treat this impromptu stay like a rustic Airbnb. They take in the idyllic scenery, and wildlife, and enjoy some quiet time by the fireplace. That is until a stranger cloaked in shadows interrupts their temporary oasis to ask, “Is Tamara here?”


From that point on, it’s pedal to the metal for The Strangers: Chapter One. The masked home invaders terrorize Maya and Ryan non-stop, playing cat-and-mouse games rather than attacking them directly. Harlin keeps the camera close to the actor’s faces, letting them do the heavy lifting for the story. Madelaine Petsch proves a capable Scream Queen, though the decisions Maya and Ryan make do leave you scratching your head. It’s enough to say she shouldn’t earn Final Girl status, but there are only so many characters to choose from in a Strangers movie. The leads look right as the leads of a home invasion thriller, but the gravitas isn’t there yet. The wheels don’t turn behind their eyes; they’re just waiting to scream.

That’s not entirely Petsch and Gutierrez’s fault. Again, the script is not much more than a hodgepodge of cliches. A couple relocating to the Pacific Northwest should be a good starter for developing character, yet the dialogue is superficial. Not to keep harping about the original, but the post-wedding dissolution of the relationship between Tyler and Speedman is more satisfying. In terms of relating to the characters in this film, that bond never happens. Perhaps more time with Maya in future sequels will change that.

Gorehounds will be disappointed the blood does not come in buckets. The cinematography won’t make audiences take notice; Harlin aims for realism, not ingenuity. The staging and blocking are effective at the immediate satisfaction of before-and-after shots of door smashing and glass breaking, yet it’s only ever functional. Without style, all we have is a formulaic story. Considering how often this particular story has played out, a sense of style would’ve gone a long way. With no style or dread present, this horror film is just pretty people and loud jump scares.

Interestingly, for all of the commentary on delving further into the mythos of The Strangers, the film doesn’t answer much more than the original. The only swerve the movie offers is placing responsibility on the town for the horrors that come. Small-town folks wanting to carve up young tourists is an explanation for The Strangers, but it’s also underwhelming and played out. With two sequels coming, they need to keep plot in reserve, but after watching ninety minutes of this, I doubt any of the material would be compelling.


Between this film and an upcoming Blair Witch Project remake, Lionsgate appears content to lazily turn over its catalog and shake it for a few bucks. Nothing about this film necessitates a connection to The Strangers, but in this era where only IP gets greenlit, it’s what we get. And much like other unnecessary tie-ins to IP that stand on their own (S. DarkoAmerican Psycho 2), The Strangers: Chapter One will live on only as an IMDb curio.

The Strangers: Chapter One hits theatres May 17, 2024.