‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Is a Whole New Level of Brainless Horror Movie

John Armour / Lionsgate
John Armour / Lionsgate

Bryan Bertino’s 2008 The Strangers is one of the millennium’s finest horror films, and a large part of its success stems from the fact that it doesn’t cheat by making its main characters morons. Faced with a home-intrusion nightmare carried out by three silent fiends, two wearing old-timey masks and the other boasting a burlap bag over his head, its protagonists (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) routinely assess their situation logically and react accordingly, thereby eliciting urgent, nail-biting engagement with their plight. It’s a small-scale masterclass in orchestrating suspense through diligent plotting and staging, not to mention memorable imagery, highlighted by the repeated sight of its villains materializing in the background, their motionless muteness casting them as inexplicable and unnerving harbingers of doom.

The same, alas, cannot be said about the sequel to Bertino’s gem, 2018’s clumsier The Strangers: Prey at Night, and that goes, double, triple, quadruple for The Strangers: Chapter 1, which hits theaters May 17. The first entry in a planned trilogy whose subsequent installments will be released in the coming year, Renny Harlin’s thriller is a de facto remix of the franchise’s first outing, the primary difference being that whereas Bertino’s original was sleek, sinister, and deft, this do-over is noisy, dull, and dumb as a bag of rocks. Managing to do a disservice to virtually every plot element that it borrows, it’s proof positive that horror-cinema components are far less important than the artists tasked with piecing them together.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 wastes no time establishing its reliance on inanity to conjure up scares. In a forest, a businessman flees unknown assailants, and despite having an enormous head start on his pursuers (after all, they’re nowhere in sight), he carelessly trips, falls and calamitously injures himself. Another male character will later exhibit similar clichéd inelegance and suffer an ankle injury that hinders his ability to fight back—one of many examples of Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland’s screenplay taking the easy way out to make its characters vulnerable.

As quickly becomes clear, this prologue is not just unimaginative but completely pointless, as the film shifts its attention to Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez), a young couple in love who are celebrating their five-year dating anniversary and are on the third day of a road trip to Portland where Maya is trying to get an architecture-related job.

‘The Strangers’ Star Madelaine Petsch Has Seen Every Horror Movie

This is flimsy pretext for why the duo are traveling through the middle of Oregon nowhere, and yet it’s more contextual detail than is provided about Ryan, a guy without any apparent profession, family, friends or defining character traits aside from his failure to pop the question to Maya—which, it’s later revealed, is simply the result of cutesy miscommunication. Maya and Ryan’s shallowness, however, pales in comparison to their stupidity. While cruising down the highway, Maya announces that she’s hungry, and Ryan pulls off the road at her urging to drive for miles (?) down a forested road that’s so remote they lose cell service (?!) and, upon finally locating the tiny town of Vernon, cheerily opt to eat at the creepy ’50s-era diner (?!?). There, they preposterously announce to all the grungy rural patrons that Maya is a vegetarian and that they’re not married, making themselves the center of attention in a place where they obviously don’t fit in and are unwelcome.

A photo including Madelaine Petsch in the film The Strangers: Chapter 1

Madelaine Petsch

John Armour / Lionsgate

Such brainlessness continues apace once they discover that their car no longer works and, despite Ryan accurately deducing that it’s due to sabotage by the hayseed mechanic, agree to stay at some oh-so-convenient hunting cabin that’s rented out as an Airbnb (!!!). This locale resembles the setting of Bertino’s The Strangers, minus the eeriness, given that Harlin’s quick cutting and look-at-me POV pans sabotage any sense of mounting dread. Once ensconced in this abode, Maya and Ryan discover that the refrigerator doesn’t work and, even though they’re only staying until morning, call for repairs in the dead of night. They’re then visited by a faceless girl who bangs at the door and asks for a non-existent person. In response, they proceed to do one head-smackingly baffling thing after another, from ignoring the threat and splitting up, to smoking weed and taking showers without any additional thought to the real and unsettling threat on their literal doorstep.

A photo including a still from the film The Strangers: Chapter 1

The Strangers: Chapter 1

John Armour / Lionsgate

The Strangers: Chapter 1 mimics the majority of its ancestor’s visual and narrative moves (including its incessant record-player tunes), albeit with a gracelessness that underlines how severely Harlin has fallen since his last watchable endeavor, 1999’s Deep Blue Sea. Maya and Ryan may have an inexplicable visitor milling around their woodlands cabin but they’re perfectly content to light lots of candles to have sex, to leave each other alone for long stretches for laughably contrived reasons, and—once they’re beset by faux-Scarecrow and his Betty Boop-ish female murderesses—to consistently make the wrong decisions in every single perilous situation in which they find themselves. Whereas Tyler and Speedman’s original victims had a head on their shoulders (and wanted to keep it that way), these young lovers are obsessed with emerging from safe spaces so they can become easier prey. They’re also fond of foolishly not looking where they’re going, making noises at inopportune moments, and waiting too long to take the decisive action that would save their hides.

A photo including Froylan Gutierrez and Madelaine Petsch from the film The Strangers: Chapter 1

Froylan Gutierrez and Madelaine Petsch

John Armour / Lionsgate

In its embrace of idiocy as a means of devising wannabe-nerve-wracking scenarios, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is actually a child of 1980s slasher films that cared less about rationality than about generic screams, chases, escape attempts, and ultra-violence. Even when it comes to its striking-looking baddies, Harlin lingers on them so long—as they silently appear and disappear, slowly walk about while singing “Rock-a-bye Baby,” or stand and stare at their targets—that they come across not as ghostly apparitions so much as pretentious cosplayers unduly taken with their own uncanniness. Harlin is as well, and he strikes the wrong balance between showing and suggesting, further undercutting the material’s terror.

At outset, title cards state that 1.4 million violent crimes occur each year, which translates to one every 26.3 seconds—meaning that seven have already occurred since the film began. The Strangers: Chapter 1’s most extreme offense, though, is what Harlin and company do to Bertino’s modern classic, right up to a coda that sets the scene for what will likely be more second-rate pulp.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.