The Strangers: Chapter 1

There are certain cliches that continually pop up in horror movies. A vulnerable woman doesn’t realize a psycho is staring at her while she showers. Potential victims hide in the crawlspace under a house. A dead animal is strung up as a warning. Those cliches and several others appear in The Strangers: Chapter 1, and yet director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) stages them with sufficient skill that they manage to have some kick, despite their familiarity. This is a lean, efficient horror flick that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does manufacture a sturdy one.

The film is a sequel to/reboot of 2008’s The Strangers, which I didn’t care for, and 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, which I liked a great deal. No reference to either previous film is made. The connecting tissue is the presence of three masked lunatics who stage random home invasions. The male wears a burlap sack over his head, while his two female accomplices sport porcelain doll masks. As the subtitle suggests, this is the first part of an already-filmed trilogy. Whether the next two chapters will somehow tie all five films together remains to be seen.

The story naturally takes place at a home way out in the middle of the woods. Couple Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) have experienced the requisite car trouble in the tiny town of Venus, Oregon. The shady local mechanic won’t be able to get the part needed to fix it until the next day. A kindly waitress points out a nearby forest home that doubles as an Airbnb. Maya and Ryan end up staying there for the night. It all seems quaint and lovely until the masked intruders arrive to terrorize them.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 goes through the motions in clever ways. Of course, there’s a mandatory “false scare.” In this case, it’s one of the most ingeniously conceived examples of that gimmick I’ve seen in years. Harlin strips away unnecessary frills to focus on tightly presented terror. The psychos don’t just pop out in a cheap manner. Burlap-head, for example, is seen reflected in a mirror above the piano Maya is playing, sitting in a chair watching her. That approach is so much more chill-inducing than a predictable jump scare.

Sound factors in prominently, too. Maya and Ryan hide throughout the home, carefully monitoring the creaking of the wooden floorboards to determine their assailants’ location. When seen with surround sound, we get to experience the sensation. This is a rare horror movie that’s sonically scary.

As creepy as the Strangers are, a fair amount of suspense comes from the fact that Maya and Ryan aren’t stupid. What they do to survive is smart and logical. Petsch and Gutierrez are appealing leads, allowing us to easily care about them. She, in particular, is skilled at horror. As the plot winds to a gruesome finale, the actress pulls out all the stops, conveying the astronomical fear Maya is enduring.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 runs a tight 91 minutes, including end credits and obligatory sequel set-up. Because Harlin keeps that pace taut, the movie creates a relentless sense of dread. I’m really looking forward to seeing where Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 take us next.


out of four

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is rated R for horror violence, language, and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Universal

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan