Thursday, May 23, 2024

“THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1”

THE STORYAfter their car breaks down in an eerie small town, a young couple is forced to spend the night in a remote cabin. Panic ensues as they are terrorized by three masked strangers who strike with no mercy and seemingly no motive.

THE CASTMadelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Gabriel Basso & Ema Horvath

THE TEAMRenny Harlin (Director), Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME91 Minutes


Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film, “The Strangers” (bogus “based on a true story” tagline notwithstanding), is one of the most chilling horror films of the 2000s. Coming at a time when horror films were all torture porn or hyperviolent foreign films and their remakes, “The Strangers” strips everything back to the barest of bones: A couple in a rough patch (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) at a remote cabin are besieged by three silent masked killers. Weaponizing deep focus and dark shadows more than just about any film since “Citizen Kane,” Bertino allows the horror to creep in around the edges of the film’s first act. Slowly but steadily, the tension is ratcheted up until the inevitable end, where the film reveals itself as one of the most nihilistic portraits of American life ever filmed.

It’s understandable why someone would want to remake it today, seeing as how the social contract has only degraded more in the sixteen years since the original, making the horror feel even closer to home. Renny Harlin’s “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is not a remake, though, despite following the original film nearly beat for beat in a new location and with a different dynamic between the main couple. No, “Chapter 1” is, as its title suggests, the intended start of a new trilogy of films, likely (although it’s hard to say based on the evidence in the movie) about the origin of those iconic masked killers.

If that sounds like an exercise in futility, that’s because it very well may be. Rebooting a piece of intellectual property with a trilogy of films is impressively (if foolhardily) ambitious. Doing so by making the first entry a carbon copy of the original cuts it off at the knees, making the new trilogy unable to stand on its own. Harlin is a remarkably unsubtle director, which makes him an odd choice to direct a film whose original version was defined by its subtlety – the titular killers first appear deep in the background, barely but clearly visible for seconds before soundlessly exiting the frame before the characters can spot them. Harlin has no use for such craft, preferring to have the killers enter the frame accompanied by a string of music meant to elicit a jump scare. The problem is that we’ve seen this kind of jump scare a million times, robbing it of its effectiveness even when it’s done well.

Harlin relies on far more rote horror beats than Bertino ever did, replacing the ice that ran through the original’s veins with pure adrenaline. It’s like putting a young child in front of Munch’s “The Scream” and telling them to paint it themselves; it might look kinda like the original, but the background would just be smears of garish colors, and the screaming man would look more like a giant mouth. In every way, Bertino’s original is subtle and even elegant, while Harlin’s is loud and obvious. This style can result in a viscerally frightening horror film, but it’s at odds with the screenplay’s more patient qualities, making for a frustrating viewing experience.

“Chapter 1” even manages to muck up the original’s tone and messaging in ways that only serve to make it more generic and less interesting. While “The Strangers” focuses on a couple going through a rough patch and having to recommit to each other, “Chapter 1” focuses on a couple, Maya (Madeleine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez), whose only issues appear to be the fact that he still hasn’t proposed after five years together and that she’s up for a job that would take them away from their New York City home to the Pacific Northwest. That job is how they find themselves in the small town of Venus, OR, where the locals don’t appear to take too kindly to outsiders.

The opening act of “Chapter 1” plays like an attempt to engage with the big city vs. rural small town discourse that has been all the rage for years. Still, it doesn’t actually engage with anything other than stereotypes meant to make our leads (and, thus, the audience) feel uncomfortable. They certainly have reason to feel that way, especially after their car refuses to start and the only place to stay is a remote hunting cabin the owner rents out in the off-season. Petsch and Gutierrez’s chemistry is pretty much the only thing that carries this section of the film – a good thing since it also needs to carry the audience through the next hour-plus of repetitive jump scares and rote tension-building. As soon as night falls, the killers come out to play, and while the masks do add a dash of personality and twisted humor, they remain just as enigmatic as in the previous films.

It’s not that Harlin does anything especially bad with his direction of the film; it’s more that his direction is very expected, leading the film to feel worse than it is. The film’s screenplay doesn’t help, with co-writers Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland piling contrivance on top of contrivance in an attempt to add some tension the closer we get to the ending we all know is coming. The adherence to the formula set up by the first film proves to be a detriment, as doing so only calls to mind the earlier film and how much better it is. All situations and lines of dialogue have been borrowed, and each presented here is less effective than in the original. Even the few original scenes here feel a bit off in either their logic or execution. It’s par for the course for horror films to throw logic out the window, but “Chapter 1” can’t even commit to how quietly people can move through the woods in scenes where most of the action takes place.

There are some fun moments, but they’re few and far between, not to mention not nearly entertaining enough to sustain the film (let alone another two). “Chapter 1” ending on a patently ridiculous cliffhanger comes as no surprise, but the thought that audiences would want to come back to see more of this story does. While Petsch and Gutierrez’s chemistry works well enough to get an audience invested in the story, their characters aren’t likable enough to warrant a more long-term investment. We don’t know yet what the subsequent two films in this trilogy will be. It’s quite possible that breaking from the established story of the 2008 original will open them up to bigger and better things – but they need to be much better than this in order to compel audiences back to this world.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez are believable as a couple stalked by a trio of silent masked killers at a remote cabin in Renny Harlin’s juiced-up prequel/reboot.

THE BAD - An uninspired rehash of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original, without the subtlety that made that film so skin-crawlingly effective.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 3/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez are believable as a couple stalked by a trio of silent masked killers at a remote cabin in Renny Harlin’s juiced-up prequel/reboot.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>An uninspired rehash of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original, without the subtlety that made that film so skin-crawlingly effective.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>3/10<br><br>"THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1"