“The Strangers: Chapter 1” is Great If You’ve Never Seen “The Strangers”

One of the most terrifying horror movies in the last few decades is Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film The Strangers. Exploring the concept of truly random violence, this landmark film follows a couple terrorized by three masked strangers who attack them over the course of one hellish night. We never see their faces and the phrase “because you were home” has been haunting the genre for the last sixteen years. Johannes Roberts’ 2018 film The Strangers: Prey At Night continues the story with a new family of victims and a bombastic conclusion. Now Renny Harlin takes us back to the beginning with The Strangers: Chapter 1, a prequel following the trio’s first kills. But is this a story worth telling? Is there enough meat left on the cinematic bone for another set of anonymous scares? 

Maya (Johannes Roberts) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are nearing the end of a cross-country road trip when car trouble leaves them stranded in a tiny Oregon town. They reluctantly agree to spend the night in a nearby Airbnb and try to make the best of the unexpected delay. But a late night knock on the door casts a shadow over their romantic evening. Ryan opens the front door to find a woman swallowed by darkness asking for someone named Tamara. This unnerving interaction unleashes a horrendous night of violent tricks as The Man in the Mask (Matus Lajcak), Dollface (Olivia Kreutzova), and Pin-Up Girl (Letizia Fabbri) play with their victims before going in for the kill. 

The Strangers: Chapter 1 purports to be a prequel, but Harlin’s film screams “remake.” Not only was Airbnb founded three months after the original’s release, technology has clearly improved since the first film was shot. While this may seem like a trivial detail, the plot hinges on use of these advanced systems. Harlin is clearly trying to reconcile the blood-soaked ending of Roberts’ film, but why not simply put different characters in the iconic masks? The whole point of these Strangers is that they could be anyone and continuing with the story in the present timeline could imply the existence of a larger cult. The film also begins with a previous kill occurring months before Maya and Ryan arrive, meaning the main events of this supposed prequel are Chapter 2 in the killer’s extensive spree and not the first time they’ve spilled blood. It’s really only the title and marketing that lead us to believe this story is anything more than a traditional sequel or remake, which casts a confusing shadow over an already troubled film. 

This murkiness could be excused with an exciting story, but Harlin delivers a nearly beat-for-beat recreation of Bertino’s original film. Prey At Night moves the story forwards and twists the Strangers tactics in inventive directions, but Harlin seems content to simply offer up the same bag of tricks we saw in 2008. The only real difference is the inclusion of the surrounding town and its unpleasant locals. This couple is also not in the process of breaking up, though they do struggle with the decision to get married. There are a few new set pieces, but nothing to match its two stellar predecessors. There’s little here that feels original and even new additions to Strangers lore feels pulled from other horror films. 

That’s not to say that the scares aren’t effective. Those new to the genre may find themselves terrified like audiences were in 2008. Harlin also manages to capture a few genuine jump scares as well. Petsch is an effective heroine and does the best with the unoriginal script. Her chemistry with Gutierrez is the film’s saving grace. We care about this likable couple even though nothing they go through is new or surprising.  

It’s not that The Strangers: Chapter 1 is bad. When viewed in a vacuum, it’s a successful and often terrifying home invasion film. But the fact that we’ve seen it all before cuts the terror off at the knees. New horror fans will likely be thrilled by this faithful recreation while those who fell in love with the anonymous monstrosity of the original story will be left scratching their heads. Just sixteen years after The Strangers hit theaters, this admittedly well-executed copy does little more than increase our appreciation for the original films.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.