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Once shockingly chilling, these “Strangers” now feel all too familiar, dooming a solidly executed reboot to a “been there, done that” fate.

The Strangers Chapter 1

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WARNING! SOME SPOILERS LIE IN WAIT AHEAD!

They say that home is where the heart is, but one would imagine that adage entirely depends upon who is home at that given moment Few horror movies explore that conflict with such terror as The Strangers (2008).

Released in 2008, writer-director Bryan Bertino’s genre film The Strangers became one of the subgenre’s most affecting home invasion movies. Although it seemed borrowed from Them (2006, not 1954), Bertino’s nihilistic motion picture blends mainstream thriller energy with old-school slasher momentum, telling the sinister story of helpless victims terrorized by cunning, emotionless, faceless intruders.

Hollywood had certainly knocked upon this particularly formulaic door before, some as early as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909) and as memorably as Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997).

These filmmakers’ widescreen contributions aided in a foundation of horror with quiet tension, sudden jump scares, and performances that played all too real for an audience suspicious of domestic assault.

And for some, The Strangers hit a little too close to home.

The film immediately sets a tone of dread not unlike Tobe Hooper’s 1974 gasoline-fueled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

A disembodied voice teases in a pitch-black introduction that the ensuing events are based upon true events.

Incentivizing its approach, the camera slowly crawls across the faces of several American homes, suggesting that the emotional and physical gruesomeness that awaits is just as probable in our own lives as moviegoers. The prologue intones that no household is immune to the savagery Bertino’s narrative will illustrate.

And yet, while the premise of this picture is entirely plausible, there’s no evidence that these specific events are rooted in reality; we know that much.

So, as the film begins, we know that James (Scott Speedman) proposes marriage to Kristen (Liv Tyler) while the two attend a wedding reception. We also know that Kristen has quietly rebuked James’ proposal despite their love for one another. Therefore, we know their evening together will be emotionally and psychologically strained.

We don’t yet know that this night will also become one of the most harrowing – alarmingly, mentally, physically – evenings of their young lives.

What follows becomes one of the most terrifying motion pictures of the decade. The audience watches as Kristen and James are sadistically petrified by three masked strangers whose only motive appears to rely on the fact that the lovers were home at that time.

What begins as a story of the destruction of a romantic couple’s love turns into the much more psychotic destruction of a romantic couple’s physical lives.

If The Strangers is the emotional and bodily massacre of two people in love, the 2018 sequel demonstrates the moving and physical murder of the American atomic family.

In The Strangers: Prey At Night, directed by Johannes Roberts and written by Bertino and Ben Katai, the body count is elevated, proving that the masked Strangers are not predisposed to a particular modus operandi.

(And the film’s staggering swimming pool scene remains to this day icing on an already impressive cake.)

These killers seem emboldened with more street-level ambition than other killers, even if their exploits only bloodied the silver screen periodically – until 2023, that is – when it was announced that director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) intended to reboot the franchise in an intended trilogy.

Harlin’s first entry, THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1, invaded theaters nationwide on May 17th. Who says you can’t go home again?

So far, the response to Chapter 1 has not been generous. Both amateur and professional critics either reignited the discussion of remakes as heretical or attacked Chapter 1 because it seemed to tread the same waters as the original two films, never daring to go further than its predecessors.

And neither critic would be wholly wrong in taking either stance.

Written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland (based upon a story by Bertino), Chapter 1 tells the story of Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Jeff Morell), a romantic couple of urbanites on an extended weekend road trip to Portland, Oregon, where Maya will interview for a life-changing career.

Suddenly stranded in a small town and forced to spend the night in a cabin Airbnb in the dark heart of the woods, the two find themselves brutally hunted by that familiar trio of masked killers who have haunted the franchise since 2008.

The Strangers Chapter 1

As always, the attack on this beautiful couple appears unprovoked, without motivation.

But the film’s motive seems just as ambiguous as the killers. The driving force of The Strangers may have been that of a couple in love being torn asunder, just as Prey At Night focused on the dissolution of family connectivity.

With Chapter 1, there is much more to unpack to arrive at a similar or refreshing theme.

The first and most obvious conflict revolves around our protagonists’ visit to a more traditional, rural area of the nation. As big city dwellers, the two aren’t necessarily equipped with the tools to communicate with the citizens of the small town of Venus. Maya and Ryan are used to dangerous subway rides in the big city at night.

They have come to accept the loud traffic sounds and raised voices that infiltrate the walls of their urban home. They’re not ready to respond to the cultural differences of small-town life.

Chapter 1 posits an urban-rural confrontation that could be as attractive as the motion picture’s central conflict, a tug-of-war between the chrome cave dwellers and the dusty den dwellers.

(Observant viewers will recognize that the famous “Because you were home” line from the 2008 original movie is adapted to “Because you were here,” here. The rhetorical shift suggests that the attack in Chapter 1 is not entirely indiscriminate but class-based, to some extent.)

In America’s big cities, one doesn’t stare at strangers, but when Maya and Ryan enter Venus’ greasy spoon cafe, all eyes are on them without question.

And this is a community of traditional, middle-American values.

Maya and Ryan become the subjects of giggling when they ask for vegetarian menu options. They raise eyebrows when it’s revealed that they’ve been seeing each other for five years, yet Ryan hasn’t proposed marriage. (Their placement in Venus – named for the Greek goddess of love – becomes more clear.) These two are fish out of water, so to speak, and they somewhat suspect it immediately.

Likewise, a pair of door-to-door Christians ask them outside the diner if they’re sinners. (Ryan promptly asks as a response: “Aren’t we all?”) Later, Ryan is offered a religious pamphlet by the woman taking his order at a carryout window.

It appears that everything about this sinful disquietude speaks to the couple’s premarital sex, alcohol consumption, and drug use, which will make them the obvious targets of a traditional slasher film.

Beyond those particular details, the movie spares no time in introducing the viewer to a Who’s Who of suspects who might hide behind the masks of the insidious Strangers.

Whether the town automotive mechanics, local law enforcement officers, the wait staff of the roadside diner, some enthusiastic locals celebrating their anniversary, or the aforementioned pubescent Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door – anyone is potentially capable of brutally knocking at their door that night.

For some, the heavy-handed introduction of potential culprits may become overwhelming, but perhaps neither Bertino, Roberts, or Harlin have ever been interested in the identities of the Strangers.

And perhaps that’s been part of the franchise’s deceit all along.

Maybe the title itself refers not to the faceless killers but to the victims themselves.

A couple growing romantically distant from one another: now strangers. A family of four trying to understand one another: blood-bound strangers. A promising young couple who have not been on the same page for five years where their relationship is concerned: truly strangers. And now – all victims and the titular focus of their stories.

In some way, maybe the viewers are strangers themselves.

For those unfamiliar with either the 2008 original or its 2016 successor, Chapter 1 may be a real treat. The movie is executed with great care, both in cinematography and pacing. Meanwhile, Petsch and Morell’s performances are incredibly capable, contributing to the production’s ominous setup, intensifying burn, and white-knuckled conclusion. These three acts are punctuated by Justin Caine Burnett’s sometimes unsettling, often jarring score.

Despite much of the picture’s deja vu, Chapter 1 assaults viewers with creatively taut moments that will entertain those who haven’t already been visited by the Strangers.

Ultimately, Chapter 1 may scream cinematic genre film gold for newcomers, even if the title promises no true peril awaits our three Strangers. These psychotics won’t be defeated in the first of three motion pictures. It’s called Chapter 1; these killers are only getting started.

Unfortunately, for true fans of the original, it will be difficult to reconcile those moments of creative ingenuity and the very familiar footsteps Chapter 1 seems to follow, just as assuredly as its killers hunt their prey.

Do not be led astray: Chapter 1 is an effective bit of genre filmmaking, even when it lacks the originality that fans have come to savor in recent years.

As horror movies seem to be enjoying a renaissance in Hollywood, how one responds to this latest iteration of The Strangers will have much to do with where one meets these masked killers, whether for the first time or the third.

Perhaps the most challenging part of producing a remake is that even if the motion picture is phenomenally produced and seems to hit the same precise beats as the original, some audiences will find that regurgitation is a fault, no matter how effectively those beats were established in the first place.

Similarly, if the remake diverges too radically from the original – like providing the Strangers with a motive or unmasking the Strangers – some audiences will also find fault with that. Strangely (no pun intended), audiences often expect a remake to simply rekindle those experiences once captured in the original, allowing no opportunity for growth, development, or reconsideration.

When Maya hears that thunderous knock on her cabin door and goes to investigate it, some moviegoers audibly beg her to take cover because they know exactly what is coming.

Maybe it’s not a matter of reaching the studied conclusion that one can never go home again. Instead, Chapter 1 asks filmmakers to pause and consider if there’s a compelling reason to return at all, as fans aren’t always eager for a simple trip down memory lane. 

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