‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Review – New Trilogy Kicks Off with a Familiar Start

Rebooting and expanding upon Bryan Bertino’s chilling 2008 horror film in a brand new trilogy, all installments already shot as part of one continuous, overarching story, makes for one of the more ambitious horror endeavors as of late. It also means that The Strangers: Chapter 1 is only the opening act of a three-part saga. Considering it’s the entry most committed to recreating the familiar beats of Bertino’s film, Chapter 1 makes for a tricky-to-gauge, overly familiar introduction to this new expansion.  

The Strangers: Chapter 1 introduces happy couple Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) on their way to starting a new life together in the Pacific Northwest. Car troubles leave them stranded in the quirky small town of Venus, Oregon, where they’re forced to stay the night in a cozy but remote cabin in the woods.

Naturally, the deeply in love couple soon find themselves in a desperate bid to survive the night when three masked strangers come knocking.

The Strangers Clip Madelaine Petsch

Madelaine Petsch as Maya in The Strangers. Photo Credit: John Armour

Director Renny Harlin, working from a 289-page screenplay by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland that was broken into three movies, keeps Chapter 1 mostly self-contained to recapture the spirit of the original film. The core remains the same in that it’s reliant on the eerie stalking and escalating violence that builds toward a familiar conclusion, but Harlin mixes it up a bit through details and set pieces that hint toward the larger story around Venus itself. The early introductory scenes establishing both the protagonists and their setting offer the biggest clues toward the subsequent chapters, with the bustling diner giving glimpses of potential allies or foes yet to come- like the silent, lurking Sheriff Rotter (Richard Brake). 

One downside to announcing this as a trilogy is that we already know that the successive chapters will continue Maya’s story, robbing more suspense from a film that liberally leans into its predecessor for scares. The good news is that Madelaine Petsch brings enough layers to Maya to pique curiosity and instill rooting interest to carry into Chapter 2. Maya begins as the gentler, more polite half of the young couple in love, but there’s a defiance that creeps through the more she’s terrorized. On that front, Petsch makes Maya’s visceral fear tangible, visibly quaking and quivering through her abject terror as she attempts to evade her relentless attackers.

The Strangers – Chapter 1. Photo Credit: John Armour

It’s her subtle emotional arc and quiet visual hints toward the bigger picture that tantalize most in an introductory chapter meant to entice younger audiences unfamiliar with the 2008 originator. The jolts will have a harder time landing for fans of Bertino’s film, however, even when Harlin stretches beyond the cabin for stunt-heavy chase sequences or gory bursts of violence. It’s worth noting that Harlin’s tenured experience and cinematographer José David Montero ensure we can grasp every intricate stunt or chase sequence with clarity; there’s no worry of squinting through the dark, hazy woods to make out what’s happening on screen. A more vibrant color palette also lends personality to Venus and its residents.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 exists in a unique place in that it’s the first 90 minutes of what will amount to a roughly 4.5-hour movie yet doesn’t give much away at all about what’s ahead, presenting only part of the whole picture. Chapter 1 does a sufficient job laying the groundwork and delivering horror thrills but with a caveat: the less familiar you are with The Strangers, the better. Harlin and crew get a bit too faithful in their bid to recreate Bertino’s effective scares, even when remixing them, and it dampens what works. The more significant departures from the source material won’t come until later, but look to a mid-credit tease that sets this up.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 doesn’t establish enough of its own identity to make it memorable or set it apart, but it’s just functional enough to raise curiosity for where we’re headed next.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 releases in theaters on May 17, 2024.

2.5 out of 5 skulls

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