Credit: John Armour/Lionsgate
by Joshua Peinado Featured Film Genre Views

The Strangers: Chapter 1 — Renny Harlin

May 20, 2024

The story of The Strangers (2008) is simple: a couple (or family, in the case of 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night) will be approached by a group of three strangers asking “Is Tamara home?” and a home invasion not dissimilar to the one in Funny Games plays out. The happenstance victims engage in a game of cat-and-mouse with the masked killers and, more often than not, succumb to their tortuous fate. It’s easy to see why the film series would garner something of a cult following. The strangers’ trio has a visual grammar that is theatrical, and not dissimilar to the iconography of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The killers are further compelling as persons completely isolated from a recognizable reality — buried behind obfuscations of anatomy and motive, and yet instantly recognizable for the archetypes they represent. It makes sense in this context that the next entry in The Strangers universe, when looking for a fresh start for a new trilogy, would seek to extrapolate this isolation to its next logical location: a cabin in the woods.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 opens to text, practically interchangeable with the prelude from the original Strangers, informing the audience that every year in the United States there are 1.4 million violent crimes committed (the real number from recent years hovers closer to 1.2 million) and that this film is a document of the worst of them. This new Strangers is a reimagining of the first film, loosely a beat-for-beat retelling. Where the first film began with a couple in distress attempting to mend their relationship in a tucked away country home, this latest Strangers announces the new couple as a happy, if slightly dysfunctional, pair. Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are on the last leg of their cross-country road trip and making a pit stop for food in the small town of Venus, Oregon. A fateful — or perhaps, as Ryan suspects, malicious — force strands them in the town, and they’re forced to seek reprieve in an out-of-town hunting cabin which doubles as an Airbnb.

From this point, the audience gets treated to what they’ve become accustomed to whenever the Strangers appear at a multiplex. A silhouetted figure knocks on the door, asks their ominous question, and it’s off to the races. Chapter 1 operates as something of a textbook of horror cliches — Ryan has asthma and his inhaler is frequently lost when he needs it most; Maya plays the paranoid girlfriend to Ryan’s “I’m sure all this danger is in your head” boyfriend; the small country diner the couple first eats at features a range of unfriendly faces and stay-out-of-town looks for the city-slickers. And as in every Strangers film, most of the runtime is occupied by a cat-and-mouse chase that often finds itself at apparent dead ends. Chapter 1 does gain some leverage from flipping the script on these apparent tropes, and maximizing the contradictions of the series. Maya and Ryan operate smartly in the face of all the threats that surround them, and the locals come to resemble kind, if somewhat standoffish and suspicious, people.

It’s the accomplished touch of director Renny Harlin and the star-making performance from Petsch that truly elevate the film, however. Petsch, should she continue at this level for the rest of the trilogy, is well on her way to becoming a scream queen sensation; Harlin’s years of experience in the horror sphere help flesh out the cabin setting well, and create a maze of abstraction in the outside woods. The close-ups, in particular, are impressive testaments to the power of the pair’s dynamic — a dramatic sequence of Petsch staring up at a Stranger from under the cover of brush, colored pale and vivid in expression by moonlight, is especially memorable. Of course, the film does fall victim to the fact that it’s the first in a trilogy (shot simultaneously, with the second to be released later this year), featuring an ending that jumps in time, which prods more than it resolves and leaves the ending here too much of an ellipses. The questions it leaves viewers to mull in the interim are also blunted, more immediate and literal (“What happened to X character?”) than anything more intellectually rigorous. And then there are the Strangers themselves, existential entities of chance-terror who hold tremendous power to linger, but a noticeable restraint of gore and censoring of the most brutal violence cools their impact this time around.

Still, if the rest of this new Strangers trilogy lives up to its inaugural entry, it’s hard to imagine the sum product failing to generate its own cult following. The characters are as well-realized as in any of the previous films, and Harlin’s welcome direction and mastery of place imbue new thrills into a familiar franchise. Viewers do have to wade through some rather mediocre production design and a par-for-the-course narrative structure, but what’s genuinely incredible at the heart of The Strangers: Chapter 1 is how it brings a sense of the novel to the known and sets itself apart from the slew of abysmal horror-reboots that audiences have been forced to digest so far this decade.

DIRECTOR: Renny Harlin;  CAST: Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Rachel Shenton, Gabriel Basso;  DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate;  IN THEATERS: May 17;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.