The Strangers: Chapter One (2024)

MAY 20, 2024


Sometimes, a movie tells you almost instantly that you shouldn’t expect too much out of it, acting almost as a warning to discerning audiences that they might as well cut their losses and leave now. The Strangers: Chapter One is one such example; after a cold open where a guy is chased through the woods and then killed by the title characters, we are shown one of those overhead landscape shots along with an on-screen title saying “Somewhere In Oregon.” But in that same shot we see an exit sign for the town of Lime, Oregon, so despite the title’s insistence, we know *exactly where* we are. A nitpicky thing, sure, but it just suggests a certain halfassery, like someone (a producer most likely – and there are several of them, including Courtney Solomon, another warning I didn't heed) wanted to play up on the “middle of nowhere” cliché that’s so prevalent in these kinds of movies, even if it wasn’t accurate.

It’s also another example (some of which we learned in the trailer) that this movie, which for all intents and purposes is a remake of the 2008 film, missed the point of what made the story work so well the first time around. For those who can’t recall (the fact that it’s been sixteen years since it came out is mind-blowing to me), the central location of the 2008 movie actually belonged to Scott Speedman’s character’s family, so it wasn’t some random house in the middle of nowhere to him, it was HIS. That’s a big part of what made it scary, as it took elements from the classic home invasion scenario AND the “we’re miles from help” type stories that set up any number of horror movies.

The other thing that made it more interesting than so many others of its type is that the couple (Speedman and Liv Tyler) were not all lovey dovey; in fact they were in a very odd spot, as he planned to take her there as a celebration of their engagement, only for him to turn him down before they got there (even romantic movies sometimes can’t pull off a devastating moment like Speedman realizing he has laid out flower petals all over the place – awkward!). Even if the killers hadn’t shown up, I’d be interested in watching how the rest of their weekend went, you know? And then you can even consider things like "She just broke his heart, is he going to be all that invested in putting himself in harm's way to help her?" (There's an idea: the Strangers pick a house where everyone inside is more likely to kill each other before they have a chance.)

Alas, this time around it’s the usual thing; the couple is on a cross country trip for a new job and their car breaks down after they stopped in a random little town to get some food. And instead of being in that awkward position of “I don’t want to marry you but I don’t want to break up, either”, it’s just a standard lovey dovey couple where the girl wants to get married but the dude hasn’t had the stones to ask yet. So it’s a setup you’ve seen a million times, with a couple you’ve seen even more. And that’d be fine if the movie was doing something different, but these alterations (which, if I haven’t made it clear, make the movie less interesting) are pretty much the only parts of the movie that aren’t directly swiped from the original. From then on it’s pretty much the same: the guy leaves on an errand, the girl smokes and doesn’t notice a killer walking around behind her, he accidentally kills someone who came to help, they go out to a shed next to the house, the Strangers ram the car they try to use to escape, etc, etc.

So that’s what the experience is like for anyone who has seen the original. Will it work on folks who HADN’T seen that one, or maybe even those who only saw it the one time in theaters and forgotten about it? Well for those it’s certainly a decent enough timekiller, I suppose. It’s never all that tense (even without the flash forward this time), but there are some decent jump scares and a suitably creepy moment where the girl is playing piano (“Moonlight Sonata” of course, because again: effort was not anyone's priority when it came to crafting this take on the story) and we realize via dim reflection in a frame above her that the Man in the Mask (sorry, Scarecrow now for some reason) is sitting behind her watching her play. The obligatory attack on the girl is also surprisingly brutal, which isn't exactly a selling point on its own, but after the tedium of some other genre films this year (i.e. Night Swim, which offered a premise that essentially guaranteed no one would ever even get hurt let alone killed), I guess it was nice to see one that wasn’t afraid to actually bang the heroes up a bit.

There are at least a couple of brief sequences that manage to get the pulse racing a little more, to its credit. At one point they realize the house has a crawlspace under it, so they go under there to try to make their way to safety, only for some rats to scurry past/over them and then the girl drives her hand right through a nail, both things leaving them wanting nothing more than to shriek/scream but having to remain quiet and not give their position away. And the shed scene has a quick flash of intensity when one stranger attacks the girl through a window with another advancing on her from inside. Also, while they do some dumb shit for sure, they actually circumvent one cliche in a way I haven't seen before; our male hero is asthmatic and of course drops his inhaler, so I immediately thought he'd have an attack at the worst time and be unable to help or the gasping would give his position away or something. Instead, when he realizes it's gone, he fashions a makeshift one out of a water bottle! Not sure if that's scientifically possible, but at least it showed some quick-thinking skills.

If you’re a fan of the original who is thinking “I don’t remember things like that happening?” you are correct – these moments are among the only times that they carve their own path. But whenever it starts to actually have its own identity, the movie quickly resumes its copycat nature, once again reminding any fan of the original that they’ve seen this all before, only better. Christ, they even have the two Mormon kids on their bikes handing out fliers and the climax (once again in the early morning light) where the two protagonists are tied to chairs while the three Strangers (in the same order no less) stand over them. It’s one thing to pay homage to an earlier film when doing a remake, but copying the same beats over and over, for a story that wasn’t all that complicated in the first place, is just remarkably pointless to me.

And that’s sad, because I was legit excited when they announced Renny Harlin was directing this (and the two already shot sequels that will follow). I don’t think he’s ever made a completely great movie (Cliffhanger probably comes closest), but he’s certainly made a lot of really fun ones over the years and given his early days in supernatural horror (with a few trips back since, like Exorcist: The Beginning) I was excited to see what he’d do with a more grounded slasher type. But his wealth of experience—far and away the most of any Strangers director thus far—was no match for the stretched-thin budget (less than the original even without inflation) and far too basic/uninspired script. They honestly could have hired anyone and I’m confident they would have ended up with roughly the same level of quality.

As for the sequels, well obviously I’m not too excited to see further adventures of our survivor, as she didn’t exactly scream “The new Laurie Strode!” to me (hell, she barely even hits the levels of “The new whoever the girl in Final Exam was!”). That said, if the very clumsily implemented setup for the next one* is an honest depiction, it’ll be set in the hospital where she’s been taken for her injuries, so at least it’ll be offering new scenarios and locations simply by default. But per Harlin, the three movies together tell one complete story, so Chapter 2 will be the middle, which is traditionally the least interesting of the three acts of a traditional narrative. So again, yeah, can’t say I’m refreshing the AMC page to find out when I can buy tickets for that one (as of now, the plan is to release the next one sometime this year and part 3 early next year). But hey, kudos to them for a decent opening weekend, proving that this IP still has some pull (it actually opened higher than Prey at Night did, in a pre-pandemic, pre-“everything is on VOD in three weeks” world). So at least the next chapters are coming out to an audience that might actually want to see them, though I think they’ll really have to offer a knockout part 2 for anyone to still be interested by the time part 3 comes along.

What say you?

*It seems this section of the film got reworked some, as the “cast in order of appearance” lists some people at the end who don’t actually appear. I also have to assume that they didn’t hire Richard Brake to just be in this one movie without any lines (he’s the sheriff, seen watching them at the diner and doing absolutely nothing else) and that he’ll return in the others. But if not, that means they likely re-edited the first act as well. Amusingly, if I'm right then that just makes it even more like the original, which also got overhauled in the post process. But at least there it paid off.


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