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May 17, 2024 / Cineplex Pictures

Starring: Madalaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Gabriel Basso

Directed By: Renny Harlin

From master director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Exorcist: The Beginning) comes a new trilogy of terror. In Chapter I, Madelaine Petsch (TV’s “Riverdale”) stars as a young woman starting a new life with her fiancé. Suddenly, during a road trip stop in a remote vacation rental in the woods, they become the prey of a mysterious gang of masked strangers who attack without warning or reason. What begins as a fight to stay alive becomes one woman’s journey of courage and cunning in this horror series bridging three compelling films.

Written By Darren Zakus

Rating 3 out of 5

The Strangers: Chapter 1 promises new terror from the infamous titular murderers that have been scarring audiences for the past decade and a half, and while Madeline Petsch does a great job leading the film and there is clearly an exciting direction from the original film’s writer and director Bryan Bertino being setup, this first of three new films displays little imagination for the franchise and feels like a greatest hits mixtape.

Back in 2008, audiences were first introduced to The Strangers: a group of three masked criminals who broke into the residence of a young couple one night, terrorized them, and eventually murdered them. With the haunting opening text indicating that the film was inspired by true events, it disturbed viewers and quickly became a fan favourite horror film. We saw a sequel back in 2018 with The Strangers: Prey at Night, which despite not being nearly as well received, it features one of the most entertaining and brutal kill sequences I have ever seen in a studio horror film, all set to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Now, Lionsgate is reviving the series with a new three part film event starting with this month’s The Strangers: Chapter 1 and continuing over two more films later this year and early next year, all from director Renny Harlin. The notion of being able to see The Strangers terrorizing again on the big screen once again was enough to get myself interested, and while you can see that they are building towards something new and exciting for the remaining two films in this story, the first film feels like a carbon copy of the original and fails to truly scare audiences.

What made The Strangers so terrifying upon release and still today is the randomness and unpredictability of the story. Seeing Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s Kristen and James show up at his family’s cabin for the night, and becoming prey to a random group of homicidal drifters ignites a fear in viewers that this could happen to them, which is driven home by that unforgettable explanation of “because you were home.” This film was only heightened by the emotional state of Kristen and James when The Strangers found them, which ensured the audience was in a fragile state once the terror began. Now sixteen years later, we are seeing a similar story playout in The Strangers: Chapter One, once again featuring a young couple terrorized by the titular killers. This time around, the couple is not from the area and does not have the emotional baggage that was present in the original film. Instead, they find themselves in a small town stranded after their car conveniently breaks down and they are given the name of a local Airbnb by the locals, who all seem to disapprove of their more cosmopolitan lifestyle and lack of being married after five years of being in a relationship. It’s only after all this setup that The Strangers come knocking, and by that point, it all feels a little too calculated. Whether it is or not is a question that still needs to be explored over the course of the remaining two films in this story, but this feels more like a generic slasher than a vision of random violence which ignites a real fear within viewers.

The story itself, despite some new flourishes to spice things up with some new scares and set pieces, largely follows the blueprint laid down by the original film. The plot beats are the same and play out in largely the same order, offering little new to fans of the original but will be enough to instill fear within newcomers to the series. The moments of terror themself feel more sanitized and safer, partially because this is only one third of the story being told by the trilogy of films, but also because of the overall story. Though, there are still a few great jump scares in the film that will play out well with a sold out crowd. The filmmaking team and cast have detailed this new entry in the franchise as expanding the world of The Strangers and being a character study, but the first film fails to meet either of those targets. It feels like a duplicate of the original, but less original feeling in terms of story, falling in line with a more generic slasher plot and setup. But, this chapter’s ending does leave things in an interesting position that promise that even though this first film feels like a repeat of the original film, we are heading into new territory for the remaining two films. And with a story from Bryan Bertino, the writer and director of the original film, I’m certain that once all three films are combined, that it is going to be one chilling story.

Leading the film is Madeline Petsch and Froy Gutierrez, and while they are no Tyler and Speedman, they capably carry the film. Within seconds of meeting their characters, you can feel the deep connection and love between them with a playful yet intimate chemistry Petsch and Guiterrez have. Guiterrez brings a mistrust to Ryan that comes across as standoffish to the locals of Venus, Oregon, fitting very comfortably into the role of macho boyfriend in a horror film. Petsch does a great job at being petrified to death, screaming, and hiding in absolute fear; becoming an excellent final girl for the film. Compared to Guiterrez, she has the better set pieces and she truly lets her talents shine, showing that she can lead a studio film with ease, in addition to executive producing it.

While there are some good jump scares to be had throughout The Strangers: Chapter 1 that arise from the franchise’s formula, the film is not the terrifying experience fans of the genre hope it to be. The film heavily follows the plot of the first film with the majority of the same plot beats throughout combined with more backstory to the young couple’s situation, which suggests that the targeting of them at the remote cabin may not be as random or without motive as one would suspect. Madeline Petsch and Froy Gutierrez put in good performances and capture the nerve-wracking experience of being hunted down by three masked strangers bent on toying with them and killing them, but aside from the film’s final moments which tease the next two films in this new story within the franchise, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is lacking in genuine terror and fails to create a frightening experience for audiences, even if they will be intrigued to see where the story goes next.

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