‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Review: Horror Tropes Gone Wrong In Renny Harlin’s Latest

The landscape of horror cinema is strewn with sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes—many of which fail to capture the essence of their predecessors. My philosophy is, If a film is to be rebooted, remade, or re-purposed, it must find a way to distinguish itself and justify its existence. Lionsgate’s The Strangers: Chapter 1, directed by Renny Harlin and written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, does neither. This latest installment is a lackluster attempt to revive a franchise that should have remained in its original, standalone glory. With wooden performances from Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez, this film only serves to remind us of what was once innovative in The Strangers (2008), is now rendered commercial, and lifeless.

The film opens with a man running frantically through the woods, beaten and bruised, pursued by masked figures wielding knives and axes. His eventual demise, though inevitable, is barely shown, denying the audience any real sense of horror. We then cut to a couple, Maya (Petsch) and Ryan (Gutierrez), on a road trip to Portland to celebrate their five-year anniversary. Lost and hungry, they veer off the main highway and stumble upon Venus, Oregon—a town that time forgot. The local diner, filled with suspicious characters, sets the stage for what is to come. As they leave, their car mysteriously refuses to start. Two men from the diner offer to fix it, claiming it will take a day, thus forcing the couple to spend the night in an unknown place.

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Ryan suspects a scam, but Maya, eager to avoid confrontation, accepts their fate and they end up staying at a log cabin listed on Airbnb. In the middle of the woods, the cabin’s eerie isolation is immediately apparent. Strange knocks on the door by a cloaked figure asking for someone who isn’t there sets the tone for the night. When Ryan leaves to get food, Maya is left alone to face the escalating terror. The masked figures from the opening scene soon begin to torment the couple, and the primary question becomes whether these two will survive the night.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is everything wrong in the horror genre. The film suffers from zero build-up, a lack of atmospheric tension, and an overreliance on cheap jump scares. The characters make a series of poor decisions, a hallmark of lazy writing that propels the plot forward with little regard for logic or audience engagement. Cohen and Freedland’s script introduces nothing new, and the worst offense is that the film is tediously drab, with no real excitement for the first 30 to 45 minutes.

Harlin’s direction and the cinematography rely heavily on tight close-up shots of the actors a technique seemingly employed to obscure upcoming scares, but this method backfires, as the audience quickly learns to anticipate every predictable jump scare. The killings lack any sense of horror or intrigue, leaving viewers to endure a protracted wait for a climax that ultimately falls flat. At least Madelaine Petsch is fun to watch. She chews up every scene as if she’s on an episode of Riverdale. This is the result of a script that has very little to work with.

In order to capture the attention of a new generation of filmgoers, particularly in a theatrical release where tickets cost upwards $17 in some cites, a reboot must offer something compelling. The Strangers: Chapter 1 is a film that should not exist, as the original already achieved what was necessary to be entertaining and memorable. This chapter marks the beginning of a series that isn’t destined to go far, but it will be a reminder that not all stories need to be retold, rebooted, or reimagined.

Maya and Ryan are written as painfully unaware and unprepared individuals, lacking any sense of self-preservation. They are archetypal horror characters who make nonsensical choices purely to drive the plot. This lack of character development results in a narrative devoid of creativity or originality. While elevated horror is not a necessity, a modicum of ingenuity is. Horror tropes can be effective and entertaining if utilized properly, but The Strangers: Chapter 1 fails spectacularly in this regard.

Title: The Strangers: Chapter 1
Distributor: Lionsgate
Release date: May 17, 2024
Director: Renny Harlin
Screenwriter: Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland
Cast: Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hr 31 min

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