The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1 | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE STRANGERS: CHAPTER 1

The Strangers: Chapter 1 review
young couple is terrorised by seemingly random strangers when at a remote AirBnB.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Renny Harlin

Starring: Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Rachel Shenton, Ema Horvath, Gabe Basso

The Strangers: Chapter 1 poster

It wasn't until 1986's Platoon that mainstream Hollywood began deconstructing America's role in the Vietnam war, daring to ask "Were we the bad guys?" During the conflict Hollywood largely avoided broaching the war, and when it was tackled it was through gung-ho propaganda like John Wayne's infamous 1968 film The Green Berets. The US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s didn't result in any propaganda movies from Hollywood, which by that time was far too liberal and self aware to engage in such rhetoric. For commentary on America's place in the world post-911 you had to look to the subtext of the horror movies that emerged from the US in the years following that tragic event. A wave of horror movies reductively labelled "Torture Porn" saw Americans brutalised, often by foreigners in far-off lands, or remote corners of America that stood in for such places. The American protagonists of such films were wide-eyed and innocent, and couldn't understand why anyone would want to target them. At the tail-end of this cycle came 2008's The Strangers, in which a couple with relationship issues are menaced in a remote rental home by three masked home invaders. We never learn the motivation for the aggressors' actions, and when asked why they chose their targets they simply reply "Cause you're here."

That answer is repeated once again in The Strangers: Chapter 1, director Renny Harlin's unexpected and arguably uncalled for prequel, but it lands very differently in 2024. Unlike the immediate post-911 years, even the most flag-waving American now has enough self-awareness to refrain from thinking any aggressor would pick them as a random target. Harlin and screenwriters Alan R Cohen and Alan Freedland use their pointless prequel to subversively deconstruct the 2008 original's place in post-911 horror cinema. The suggestion is made here that the couple at its centre may not have been randomly targeted, but might have brought it on themselves through their treatment of others. If the 2008 original was like watching 911 on NBC, this is like watching the World Trade Center collapse on Iranian state TV.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 review

As with the first film, Chapter 1 sees a young couple book a stay at a secluded rental home. The difference here is that rather than being at the end of their relationship, Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are head over heels in love, and their stay is accidental rather than planned. The couple are on a road trip to mark their fifth anniversary when their car breaks down in rural Oregon, forcing them to spend the night at a rental home in the middle of some dark woods. As with the original, the film contrives to leave the female lead alone, at which point she is terrorised by the titular trio of masked home invaders.

But as they say, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, and by the point the antagonists show up here you might well be willing them on. Ryan is one of the most unlikeable protagonists to lead a horror movie in some time. He's a condescending, snobbish city slicker who clearly feels he's above the rural locals, and he treats them with contempt in the film's early scenes. Harlin subverts the old backwoods horror cliche of the locals stopping to stare at the newcomers when Ryan and Maya stop off at a local diner. Here it turns out the hicks are simply genuinely curious to meet some newcomers, and they're all perfectly friendly, despite how obnoxious Ryan is towards them. We never learn who is behind the masks, but there are as many candidates as there would be if the US suffered another major attack on its soil, and we can understand their grievances if not condone their response. That said, I was fully onboard with the potential of seeing Ryan get what's coming to him.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 review

Harlin's film is a kindred spirit of Alexandre Aja's 2006 Hills Have Eyes remake in that it's another case of a European genre filmmaker using an unnecessary reboot of a respected American horror movie to criticise aspects of the US. Unlike Wes Craven's original, Aja's remake gave us an explicit explanation for its cannibalistic villains, the result of America's atomic testing on its own land. Along with forcing American viewers to recontextualise what "Cause you're here" means, Harlin's film opens with some text outlining just what a violent society the US is; a couple of minutes in said text points out how many violent crimes have been committed since you began watching the movie.

Here's the thing though: a subtextually interesting horror movie is great if you write about movies and spend a lot of your time overthinking them and picking them apart, but it still has to work as a horror movie, and The Strangers: Chapter 1 simply doesn't. Harlin's career has been divided between smaller budgeted horror movies and mega-budget action flicks, and I don't think anyone would argue his strength lies in the former. He's completely out of depth here, unable to effectively forge the required atmosphere of impending doom from this material. Everything is rushed, and the patient build-up that defined the original is absent here as Harlin relies on cheap, repetitive jump scares, constantly repeating the same trick of a figure appearing behind an unsuspecting protagonist when they move to the other side of the frame. In one scene that's almost Godardian in its postmodernism, Harlin literally points out the mechanics of this shot by having Ryan explain it to Maya. It's as though Harlin is admitting that he thinks horror movies are easy to construct, that they rely solely on a bag of tricks. But he's wrong; that's how bad horror movies are made. Good horror filmmakers come up with their own tricks. Take for example 2018's superior sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night, which suffers from wooden writing but boasts some very clever direction by Johannes Roberts. In that movie Roberts uses the camera in a way that suggests its operator is as oblivious to what's about to happen at any moment as the film's protagonists. This means the scares aren't predictable, as the camera reacts to the action rather than telegraphs it for the audience. There's nothing so clever in Harlin's film, which is constructed in a manner that will have jaded horror fans knowing exactly what's coming next at any given moment. Harlin's direction is so uninspired that you can almost predict the exact sequence of shots he's about to unspool in every scene.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 review

As it wasn't screened for the press (never a good sign), I saw Chapter 1 with a public audience, which rapidly diminished from a sizeable initial crowd to a mere handful by the closing credits. What this means for the continuation of this trilogy is unclear, but I really can't see where it can go from here. Everything interesting about Chapter 1 is subtextual, and will only be picked up on by genre obsessives. Like Rob Zombie before him with his "What if Michael Myers was a product of a white trash upbringing?" take on Halloween, what Harlin fails to understand here is how the ambiguity of this series is its main selling point. Recontextualising the meaning of "Cause you're here" is all very clever in a socio-political context, but I prefer my horror villains to be abstract representations of evil, motivated by indefinable concepts rather than personal grudges. The scariest villains are those you can't understand.

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is in cinemas from May 17th.

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