The Strangers: Chapter 1 review – unnecessary horror retread

Estimated read time 4 min read

In a genre in which innovation is increasingly resigned to the furthest outskirts, there’s something almost admirable about just how staggeringly redundant The Strangers: Chapter 1 is, early contender for 2024’s most pointless horror movie. It’s the third in a series that should have stopped after one, a reboot that’s more of a remake but sold as a prequel while also acting as the start of a new trilogy, an over-complicated attempt to squeeze new life out of old IP. The 2008 original, which starred Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple menaced by three masked invaders, was a short, sharp shock to the system, a bare-bones exercise in drip-drip suspense made scarier by its cold, motivation-less villains (“Because you were home”).

There was a stark, naturalistic nastiness to it, closer to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games than most of the silly genre dreck being churned out at the time and so while the film was a commercial win for Universal, it didn’t lend itself to easy extension. A troubled decade of false starts finally led to 2018’s sleekly made yet maddeningly scare-free sequel Prey at Night and now six years later, with rights moving over to Lionsgate, we have a new trilogy, ambitious in concept if nothing else. The three films are all set to be released within a year, an expansion of a world that worked best on the simplest of terms, a perfect example of unnecessary bloat at a time when we’re surrounded by it. It’s the era of 10-hour TV seasons that could be 100-minute movies and prequels to stories answering questions we never cared to ask and with yet more to come from the worlds of Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings, why not stretch a tight 85-minute shocker into a multi-film franchise?

The obvious answer is in the question and nothing in the first chapter offers any justification for why we’re here or why we should be expected to show up two more times over the next 12 months. While the original, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, had the unsettling grit of gloomy reality, filmed on location in rural South Carolina, the remix has an uncanny and off-putting artificiality, Slovakia standing in for Oregon yet the whole thing feeling more like it was shot on a soundstage or at the themed Strangersland at Lionsgate World. It’s like watching the original remade as a video game, a similar feeling had earlier this year with the equally inessential Mean Girls redo, both acting most efficiently as bleak signs of the time we’re in.

The plot has been mostly kept the same with just a few tweaks, this time it’s a younger couple heading on a road trip to Portland who are forced to spend the night after car troubles. They find an Airbnb, or an “internet house” as the yellow of teeth locals call it, and bad decision after bad decision leaves them at the mercy of some familiar looking ghouls.

The director, Renny Harlin, is a competent and experienced hand, so there’s a sturdy workmanlike quality here but, more typically associated with bombastic action movies, he just doesn’t have the patience required to build real, clammy suspense or the awareness of the smaller specificities that are needed to immerse us in an intimate story such as this. There’s no dread or tension, a remarkably easygoing time for a reboot of something that went so very hard (Bertino’s grim 2020 farmhouse horror The Dark and the Wicked showed us he can go even harder). It’s Kidz Bop Strangers for sleepovers where no one will have any trouble sleeping after (despite an R rating), a tone also reflected by the actors playing the victims, Riverdale’s Madelaine Petsch and Teen Wolf’s Froy Gutierrez, both adequate in a synthetic CW kinda way but we never get the howl of terror that Tyler gave us in the original. Without any new twist or surprise to the original story, we’re then left with a limp retrace.

If the original was a way of showing just how much could be done with very little, this is what happens when that very little is all we’re given, dumped on a plate and carelessly thrown our way, slop without garnish. There’s something almost contemptuous about it all, a “this will do, right?” shrug of a thing that audiences should instantly reject with a loud “no, it won’t”.

  • The Strangers: Chapter 1 is out in US and UK cinemas on 17 May


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