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tamara never dies

The Strangers: Chapter 1 (15)

Director: Renny Harlin
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino, Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland

Starring: Madelaine Petsch, Ryan Bown, Matus Lajcak

Running time: 91 minutes

Cinema release

Review: David Stephens

When is a remake, not a remake? When is a sequel, not a follow-up? And what happens to the “old” characters and incidents when something is rebooted? Those are the questions that, as film fans, we find ourselves continuing to ask when seeing the latest movies with titles that are the same as previous ones or have bolt-on subtitles rather than just a number. Latest example? Look above these words. Because those are the same questions that were probably running through the collective minds of the horror community when this project was originally announced. Bryan Bertino’s original The Strangers was a queasy variation on the home invasion sub-genre (16 years ago, believe it or not!) and has come to be considered by many as a cult classic as time has passed. Using the Fargo-like spin on being inspired by “true events” (albeit staggeringly loosely), it was a divisive film at the time. It gave an arthouse sheen to the slasher genre, as three masked psychopaths terrorised the summer home of Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) for absolutely no reason, other than the one given by the “Dollface” Stranger (“Because you were home.”). This “new” take on the franchise is the first of three “Chapters”, all of which were shot in just 52 days by veteran director Renny Harlin (responsible for Nightmare on Elm Street 4, amongst others). Unlike the recent attempt at a new Exorcist trilogy (*laughs hysterically*), this one is already in the can, with the next entries expected in Autumn 2024 and early 2025. So let’s have a look at how stranger this thing really is.


There’s a brief and effective prologue of a man in a suit running full pelt through deserted backwoods. Deserted that is, apart from another bloke, with a burlap mask on his head and an axe to grind… into suit-guy. Shift scene to lovey-dovey couple Maya (Madelaine Petsch from Riverdale) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez from Teen Wolf). They’re on a road trip through Oregon and stop off for a food break in a diner located in a one-street hick town called “Venus”. Ryan’s car then mysteriously breaks down (possibly as part of a local scam by the garage owner) and they are forced to quickly rent a local cabin to spend the night while it’s repaired. It seems a nice option until a weird young woman (keeping herself in the shadows) knocks on the door asking after someone called “Tamara”. This happens twice and the young couple are suitably freaked out. Then things escalate and the masked Strangers, namely “Scarecrow” (known simply as “Man in the Mask” in the other films), “Pin-up Girl”, and “Dollface” start to play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the innocent duo. It’s not going to end well.


If you were a die-hard horror fan in the 80s, Evil Dead 2 was one puzzling film. (This is relevant. Bear with us.) It is/was a brilliant movie, but the first part of it is a virtual remake of its predecessor until it introduces new characters and ups the stakes to wonderfully ludicrous levels. Now, imagine if Evil Dead 2 had been spread across three films and the remake bit of it was released as a single product. That’s this writer’s half-assed way of saying that Strangers: Chapter 1 is a reboot/remake (or “reimagining” as Petsch and Harlin somewhat predictably call it) of the Bertino original, and how you feel about that is definitely going to affect how you react to the movie. On a personal level, and likely for a certain demographic of the viewing audience, this is actually a frustrating and annoying experience for several reasons.


“Chapter 1” is a straightforward retelling of the original film. You can’t argue otherwise. Sure, the couple is different and there are some updated narrative arcs, but there are so many similarities that it almost feels like Harlin has gone for a shot-for-shot update like Gus Van Sant did with his needless version of Psycho in 1998. Check these details out (without spoilers) of details that are from the 2008 film and also Chapter 1; the lead couple is having issues with a marriage proposal, there’s an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, steamy sexy-times are interrupted by a knock at the door, someone asks for “Tamara”, one character leaves to get supplies, and several other things that are near identical which can’t be highlighted without creating serious spoilage. Not only that, but it even nicks a sequence from the (proper) sequel Prey at Night in the last act. And all of that is ignoring the fact that the three Strangers are attired with exactly the same masks and characteristics as the two previous films.


This might not be a problem if any imaginative deviation was made from the original, but there is no such thing. It all pretty much runs the same course. There’s a (very) brief introduction to the townsfolk, which potentially lays the groundwork for what happens in Chapters 2 and 3. But that’s beside the point. As far as Chapter 1 goes, it’s as predictable and pedestrian as any other slasher or cabin in the woods movie you’ve ever seen. Even more so if you’ve seen the original film! This is where the element of frustration comes in. You know that the next two films are (hopefully) going to branch out and take the narrative (hopefully again) in new and more innovative directions. That’s the whole point surely! But that’s also what makes this entry so dull and disappointing, even unscary, to a point. Just as you think you’re going to see something original and have some fresh details thrown into the mix, Chapter 1 flips you the middle finger and leaves you hanging.


If only the film had done an Evil Dead 2 and had this piece of the story condensed into twenty minutes or so before moving on to something new. Hell, even the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot crammed in the details of the original film into ten minutes before carrying on. As it is, by the time the credits roll, you’ll be left feeling annoyed and unsatisfied, rather than eager to see Chapter 2. It’s entirely feasible that the follow-up films could be excellent and provide an intriguing bit of character study or add unexpected details to the mix. But that doesn’t help anyone’s experience of this film. In all honesty, this is not a badly made effort. Although the dialogue could have been polished a little more to wring out the tropes (“You stay here”, “I’ve got this”, etc.), there is some skill on show. Similar to Prey at Night, there’s a lovely piece of musical symbiosis, with “Nights of White Satin” providing a creepy atmosphere. There’s a marvellous piece of scene-framing where an antagonist is shown in a mirror above another character playing a piano. And there’s a wince-worthy injury involving a hand and a nail. The chemistry is also nice between the two leads, something which is important for this entry.


On the opposite side of the coin though, the sheer underplayed creepiness of the original is lost to obvious attempts at jump scares, nearly all of which are of the “It’s behind you!!” variety. The overblown soundtrack also knackers any sense of suspense, as it swamps it with whining or shrieking string instruments any time something gets a bit tense. Sometimes less is more. Being generous, if you have never seen the previous films, this may well be an advantage and improve your opinion of what you see. Otherwise, you are going to feel shortchanged and there’s a chance that this may not bode well for reactions to Chapter 2. You really have to question the logic behind all this and at this point, it’s going to take something very special indeed to make us want to get the know the Strangers better.

This is… in a very literal sense… nothing that you haven’t seen before. It’s not badly made and has its moments, but if you have any knowledge of the previous films, you will find this a frustrating and pointless experience. Mark it higher if you are fresh to the franchise. Otherwise, watch the original and skip to Chapter 2.
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