Why ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Isn’t the Comeback We Craved

'Cliffhanger' director can't do much with durable horror franchise's tropes

Renny Harlin’s “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is a remake of the 2008 original and the first of three new films scheduled to be released throughout the year.

Well, I think it’s a remake unless this eventually aligns itself with the original and justifies that sometimes the same thing happens in movies, just to different people, as in the 2011 remake/prequel to “The Thing.”

The Strangers: Chapter 1 (2024) Official Trailer - Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez

A pleasant but clueless couple, Maya and Ryan (Madeline Petsch and Froy Gutierrez), take a road trip and find themselves stranded in Venus, Oregon. The town has bad internet reception, run-down diners (don’t you dare ask for a vegetarian alternative!) and unfriendly locals.

Maya and Ryan wind up in an Airbnb and believe their romantic gestures are going to allow them a full night of sex and sleep, but we know better.

Why? Because the movie begins with title cards that not only inform us of how many murders take place in this country, but how many people have died since you, dear filmgoers, have been sitting in this movie theater (William Castle, eat your heart out).

Oh, and the first scene in the movie depicts a guy getting axed to death by a trio of hooded killers, in a setting just down the road from where Maya and Ryan are discussing their hopes and dreams.


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It appears that Harlin studied writer/director Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers” (2008) and made a studious effort to copy and enhance it, making everything bigger. Despite a professional effort to meet and exceed the expectations of the first film, the spare, tight and tragic quality of Bertino’s film is missing.

So is the moving intro and lived-in dynamic between its leads, played beautifully by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. With far less money and fanfare, Bertino created the best contemporary home invasion horror film; everything about it felt like a long shot, from the long-delayed release date to casting leads who seemed at odds with the genre but were perfect for the roles.

Here, the new leads are played by capable actors but the characters, from the very start, are irritating. I’m happy to show compassion for anyone being stalked by scary killers late at night but, even under the stress of being terrorized, why do Maya and Ryan always drop their keys, cell phone, inhaler and found weapons?


Harlin’s film somehow manages to overcome an awful start, with cliches stacked high enough for this to be a self-parody. Once we get to that fateful late-night knock at the door, this works better than expected. Two moments (a subtle twist on the view from a keyhole and a mirror reflection during a piano recital) are especially haunting and Harlin throws lots of impactful bits at us.

It’s something of a twist having Ryan not depicted as an alpha male, though Maya is hardly Laurie Strode (if you’re alone in a creepy cabin in the woods, the last thing you should do to pass the time is loudly play the piano!).

It’s all very drawn out, making it seem far longer than the 90-minute running time. While the initial sequel/remake, “The Strangers: Prey At Night” (2018), was a dud, at least the novelty of a new setting (an abandoned trailer park) made it feel less redundant than it actually was.

The Strangers: Prey at Night Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Indie

I won’t spoil what happens, but this one not only repeats the finale of the first movie (and lamely tries to top the “Because you were home” line), it fulfills its Chapter 1 ambitions with a lame, mid-credits stinger that appears to be setting up a routine Chapter 2.

If Harlin can include the cantankerous population of Venus and address the odd, unnamed church that everyone apparently attends in chapter 2, then he may have something. Otherwise, this competent but overextended sequel is trying too hard.

It’s also nasty and cruel, but even a glance at the poster could have told you that.

Harlin’s last great film, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996), is also his best. Since then, he’s been making lots of B-movie schlock, sometimes with generous budgets (like the 2004 “Exorcist: The Beginning”). He’s a real talent, particularly in the action/adventure genre, as his “Cliffhanger” (1993) and “Die Hard 2” (1990) demonstrate.

I’m still hoping that Harlin will make a big comeback. For now, here’s the first in a trilogy that, from the outset, appears to be inching into a three-hour, big-budget remake of the first film.

In a summer where I’ll be first in line to watch Kevin Costner unspool the first in his multi-chaptered epic westerns, I’m currently unconvinced that we needed to stretch, inflate, and repackage “The Strangers.”

If chapters 2 and 3 wind up becoming horror classics, it will be a pleasant surprise. For now, it’s safe to say that, despite some tricks Harlin has up his sleeve, the novelty is wearing thin.

Two Stars

One Comment

  1. The original Strangers movie was one of the best, most terrifying horror movies I’ve ever seen. No way a sequel could ever hold a candle to it.

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