THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1 Review: Why Are You Doing This?

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1 Review: Why Are You Doing This?

Those lamenting the dearth of originality in films in this epoch of remakes/reboots/reimaginings/requels, etc find no challenge to their despair in Renny Harlin’s The Strangers: Chapter 1. The first of a planned – and already completed – trilogy of films intended to expand and deepen the world of The Strangers, Chapter 1 brazenly cribs from the first film while somehow also fundamentally misunderstanding what made it cultural touchstone for horror fans in 2008. Yes, it’s a remake, but it’s closer to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho than John Carpenter’s The Thing, with less to recommend it than either of those. The disappointment runs deep, leading to the question that everyone, both on screen and off, will be asking, why are you doing this?

A thirty-something couple on the way to the Pacific Northwest make an unscheduled detour into the small town of Venus to grab a bite before the final stretch of their long road trip. Driving up in their fancy car, it’s as if Martians had landed in the eyes of the locals, the entire town stops to gawk at this perfectly average looking duo, practically spitting on the ground in front of them as they step into the unusually hostile town diner to grab a bite.

After finishing their shockingly contentious meal, they attempt to get back on the road only to find that their car won’t start, leading Jeff (Ryan Brown) to accuse the town mechanic of crippling the vehicle to squeeze a few dollars out of the cityslickers. His wife Maya (Madelaine Petsch) insists that it must be a result of a recent near miss, and the two leave the car to get fixed. There’s no hotel in Venus, but their waitress tells them about a nearby AirBnB – or “internet house” as one of the local yokels calls it – and the couple are off to kill an evening with some warm Budweiser and maybe a bit of hanky panky.

From here on out, if you know The Strangers, you know this film. As they are settling in, there comes a knock on the door. A girl appears in darkness and asks for Tamara. Tamara isn’t there. That’s weird. Maya gets hungry and Jeff jets off to the local burger shack to grab them a bite, meanwhile, some very odd noises put Maya off center and then the fun begins. A trio of masked assailants descend upon the house, determined to hack and slash their way through these city folk. Jeff and Maya run, hide, and fight for a while, and then it’s over. Or is it?

The Strangers is such an iconic vision of horror of the current century that it hardly warrants rehashing the premise of the film. Unnamed, faceless attackers prey upon an unlucky family in increasingly brutal and sadistic ways. The overall plot of the film isn’t terribly dissimilar from a thousand slasher movies, but the way writer/director Bryan Bertino executed the film, disassociating the villains from the victims entirely, making it a meditation of the banality of violence and the randomness of evil made The Strangers stand out.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 seems to be attempting to answer a question that no one was asking, what is the violence all about? The few structural changes between the two films speak volumes about the difference between a successful film and a generic one. The unnecessary addition of a prelude to violence in Chapter 1, where this couple, through no real fault of their own, manage to ostracize this small town, creates dozens of potential killers. Everyone in Venus seems to hate Maya and Jeff on sight, it’s not logical, and it forces the film more into Wrong Turn territory than The Strangers territory, but it defeats the idea that the violence is random. They’ve made enemies.

Then there are Maya and Jeff, the perfectly average, depressingly milquetoast, middle-class couple with no real interpersonal conflicts. They are just nice. Among the greatest strengths of the previous Strangers films was the fact that our ostensive victims are facing conflict among themselves that they have to overcome if they are going to have any chance of surviving the external threat. Chapter 1 removes that obstacle, these two lovebirds are immediately on the same page, which makes almost every moment spent with them alone utterly frictionless. The only conflict is from without, and when your antagonists have no dialogue and no obvious motivation, it’s boring to watch a happy couple agree with each other over and over again, even when they are being hunted.

Director Renny Harlin is no stranger (pun intended) to franchise films. A veteran of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Die Hard series, he’s clearly capable of adapting, but the remit of recreating a phenomenon seems to have been too much for he and his writers, Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, to manage. The script is so beholden to the original, in fact, that Bertino retains a story by credit in the finished product, but it lacks all of the bite of Bertino’s film.

Back in 2008, The Strangers was an atom bomb of a film, taking the old-fashioned siege horror film and adding new dimensions of violence and savagery that hadn’t been seen since the exploitation days of the ‘70s. Even the sequel, 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night had plenty to recommend about it, far more of an ‘80s style slasher movie than its predecessor, it still revels in the violence and unpredictability of it all. The Strangers: Chapter 1 seems rather unconcerned with making an impression on its own, instead leaning on the fact that it’s just the beginning of a trilogy to get the audience engaged, losing all of the special touches from either of its antecedent films. This is as generic of a film as they come, a dreadfully blah entry in a series of films that deserves better.

The Strangers: Chapter 1

  • Renny Harlin
  • Alan R. Cohen
  • Alan Freedland
  • Madelaine Petsch
  • Ryan Bown
  • Matus Lajcak
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Renny HarlinAlan R. CohenAlan FreedlandMadelaine PetschRyan BownMatus LajcakHorror

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