‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Review: Madelaine Petsch Baits Relentless Jump Scares in Familiar Format

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” is more enjoyable than anticipated. In a backwards way, that’s all the more reason to be let down by Lionsgate’s increasingly confused slasher franchise: A recognizable and once cherished piece of IP that, less than two decades since its creation, is already getting picked for parts.

What began as a barebones home invasion horror — extraordinary because of how well writer/director Bryan Bertino manipulated a total lack of expectation in his first film from 2008 — isn’t so beautifully subtle or senseless anymore. No, these days and directed by Renny Harlin, “The Strangers” is your average melodramatic thriller packed front-to-end with shadowy forest scenes, tight jump-scares, and clumsy repeated references to what few lines work as callbacks from the original script. (Suffice to say, “Chapter 1” hits “Is Tamara here?” like a dead corpse.)

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That’s fun enough for casual fans and, although the character work and dialogue leave something to be desired, it’s hard to knock “Chapter 1” for overall execution; the suspense is relentless and, as a matter of tone, the occasionally soapy movie knows what it is and it likes that. But in a genre already overrun with disappointing cash-grabs — and an ironic familiarity now baked into the titular Strangers — this good-but-not-great spinoff has the dusty aftertaste of a studio-driven double-dip. It’s the same thing you’ve seen before only less mournful and more business motivated. Think Stranger Danger Lite: all the silent mocking and bursts of violence, now with half the emotional investment.

THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1, 2024. ph: John Armour / © Lions Gate Films / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Strangers — Chapter 1”©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Starring Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez as yet another couple terrorized while renting a rural retreat, this companion flick isn’t presented as a prequel or a sequel and, thanks to its maddening title, audiences will likely walk in and out of theaters equally confused about its timeline. Written by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedlan, from a story by Bertino himself, “Chapter 1” begins instead in a nonspecific period (there are smartphones?) in a suspiciously unfriendly corner of Oregon. When car troubles leave our lovebirds stranded, city-slickers Maya and Ryan stumble onto uncomfortable encounters with locals in no time and, as in the first film, creepy religious missionaries abound.

That’s a menacing world we may yet come back to, but not this film. Situationally whisked away to a romantic night in an Airbnb, the couple soon settles into the single location that will anchor the rest of their story. Editor Michelle Harrison dazzles, steadily building a dreamy atmosphere around the warm diaphanous beauty of the interior scenes before the movie is (perhaps prematurely) plunged into a striking darkness and the scares hit like a relentless pounding at the front door.

Spiritually copying the recipe of the first film, without explaining how it relates to that world whatsoever, “Chapter 1” replaces the fracturing engagement from the lovers attacked in the inaugural “Strangers” outing (Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman) with the promise of a blossoming romance between the innately likable Petsch and Golden Retriever-esque Gutierrez. They’re punished mercilessly for their seeming happiness and both actors deliver an earnest presence when working the problem together. Still, it must be said, Petsch — who also executive produces — is outright electric when she’s on her own, reflecting her surroundings with kaleidoscopic disbelief. If “Chapter 1” can be credited with one discovery, then it’s that the former “Riverdale” mean girl is well on her way to becoming a bonafide scream queen.

Diehard appreciators of the duology (2018’s “Prey at Night” at least tried something different) won’t likely be offended at this glossy retread, but with two more follow-ups expected this year… in what’s effectively a made-for-theaters miniseries… they might. As a matter of construction, “Chapter 1” shows you nothing you haven’t seen before and, even done well, that thinly veiled IP recycle may doom “Chapter 2” and “Chapter 3” to diminishing returns. Yes, the masks are great. And yes, home invasions will aways be scary. But when it comes to messing with genre classics, your answer to “Why remake a near-perfect film?” can’t be “It was here.

Review: C+

A Fifth Element production presented by Lionsgate, “The Strangers — Chapter 1” hits theaters on Friday, May 17.

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