Review: ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1,’ starring Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez

May 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Olivia Kreutzova and Matus Lajcak in a scene from “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (Photo by John Armour/Lionsgate)

“The Strangers: Chapter 1”

Directed by Renny Harlin

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2008, in the fictional town of Venus, Oregon, the horror film “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (a direct sequel to 2008’s “The Strangers”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latin person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A dating couple, who are on a cross-country road trip from New York to Oregon, experience deadly terror when they are targeted by three masked strangers at a remote house in the woods. 

Culture Audience: “The Strangers: Chapter 1” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and the 2008 “The Strangers” movie, but this dull sequel is a pathetic imitation of the original “The Strangers” movie.

Froy Gutierrez and Madelaine Petsch in “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (Photo by John Armour/Lionsgate)

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” should be called “The Strangers: 1 More Cash Grab.” This sequel is nothing but a stale, boring and inferior retread of the original 2008 horror movie “The Strangers.” “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is supposed to be the first movie in a trilogy that happens directly after the events of 2008’s “The Strangers,” which wasn’t a very original movie in the first place, since it’s about killers targeting victims at an isolated place in the woods. But at least 2008’s “The Strangers” movie (starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman; written and directed by Bryan Bertino) was very effective in its creepiness and suspense.

Directed by Renny Harlin, “The Strangers: Chapter 1” was written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland. The movie is a complete insult to anyone who believed the lie that “The Strangers: Chapter 1” filmmakers said when they hyped “The Strangers: Chapter 1” as a movie that would explain more about the three mysterious, masked and unnamed murderers (one man and two women) who caused the terror in 2008’s “The Strangers” movie. “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is supposed to take place the day after the end of “The Strangers.” Viewers of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” will in fact learn nothing new about the three serial killers in this awful movie.

In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” the three killers are described in the movie’s end credits by the types of masks they wear. The male killer wears a scarecrow hooded mask, so he can be called Scarecrow (played by Matus Lajcak), and he likes to use an axe in his murders. The younger female killer wears a doll mask, so she can be called Dollface (Olivia Kreutzova), who is the only one of the three killers whose speaking voice is heard the most. The older female killer, who wears a Betty Boop-styled mask and can be called Pin-Up (played by Letizia Fabbri), proves to be more unhinged than Dollface. The women are more likely to use knives, but all three killers can also use whatever weapon is at their disposal.

An example of the filmmaker lies about this movie is in a director’s statement in “The Strangers: Chapter 1” production notes. Harlin says: “This was not a remake, nor a prequel or sequel, of the original. This was an incredible opportunity to do something completely groundbreaking. This was one huge horror saga, divided into three chapters. The producers wanted to focus on what happened basically the next day, as the original 2008 film ended.”

What Harlin says about “The Strangers: Chapter 1” not being a sequel is completely false. A movie is a sequel if it shows what three of the main characters did the day after the events of a previous movie. Whoever the masked killers are in “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” they are wearing the same types of masks and target their victims in the same ways as the killers in 2008’s “The Strangers.” And there is nothing groundbreaking about a sequel that essentially copies (with no surprises) many of the same things that a previous movie did.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” rips off the exact same concept as 2008’s “The Strangers”: The three killers target a young couple staying at a house in an isolated wooded area. The unmarried couple even has the same relationship issue in both movies: Someone in the relationship wants more of a commitment (in other words, marriage) than the other person is willing to give. In 2008’s “The Strangers,” the woman in the relationship turned down the man’s marriage proposal (in a rejection that is not shown in the movie) before they take their trip to the woods. In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” the woman in the relationship wants the man to propose marriage, but he doesn’t really seem interested in taking their relationship to the level of marriage.

The couple at the center of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” (which takes place in 2008) are Ryan (played by Froy Gutierrez) and Maya (played by Madelaine Petsch, one of the executive producers of the movie), who are on a cross-country road trip from New York to Oregon, because Maya has a job interview in Portland, Oregon. (“The Strangers: Chapter 1” was actually filmed in Bratislava, Slovakia.) Ryan is driving for this trip. The movie never reveals anything else that’s meaningful about this couple except that the story takes place on the fifth anniversary that they started dating each other.

The opening scene of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” takes place in the daytime and shows a man in his late 20s or early 30s running frantically through a wooded area, as if he’s being chased. And sure enough, Scarecrow and Pin-Up come out of the shadows and corner him. Scarecrow takes his axe and beheads the man. Viewers later find out that this murder victim’s name is Jeff Morell (played by Ryan Bown), because his photo and name are seen on a missing person flyer at a diner in the rural town of Venus, Oregon, where Ryan and Maya stop to get something to eat. Don’t expect to find out anything else about Jeff in this mindless movie.

Predictably, most of the local people at the diner stare at Ryan and Maya with stereotypical “you’re not from around these parts” suspicion. A hostile-looking and intrusive waitress named Carol (played by Janis Ahern) overhears that Ryan and Maya have been dating for five years and scolds Ryan for “not putting a ring on it” yet. Don’t expect to find out anything substantial about any other people in this small town.

One of the few people at the diner who is openly friendly to Ryan and Maya is a waitress named Shelly (played by Ema Horvath), who helps the couple when Ryan and Maya need a place to stay for the night. Is Shelly really being helpful or is she setting up Ryan and Maya for something dangerous? Don’t expect the movie to answer that question either.

Ryan and Maya need a place to stay in Venus that night because when they leave the diner, they find out that their car won’t start. A mechanic named Rudy (played by Ben Cartwright) says he owns a car repair shop and offers to tow the car to the shop with his assistant Dougie (played by Stevee Davies) helping out. Rudy and Dougie were loitering outside the diner when Ryan and Maya arrived. Rudy tells Ryan and Maya that they have to wait until the next day to order any car parts that are needed to fix the car.

Ryan immediately thinks this is a scam; he suspects that someone tampered with the car so that Rudy could get some money to fix the car. Maya is more trusting and reminds Ryan that they almost crashed into another car when they were on the road because Ryan was distracted while driving. Maya thinks this near-accident could have something to do with the car’s malfunction.

Shelly tells Ryan and Maya that there’s an Airbnb cabin available in the woods. Shelly offers to drive them there after arrangements are made for Ryan and Maya to stay at the cabin. And you know where the rest of the movie is going if you know anything about “The Strangers” movie series, which also includes 2018’s “The Strangers: Prey at Night.”

Dollface is the killer who knocks on the house’s front door multiple times at night. And when someone answers the door, Dollface asks for someone whom she knows isn’t there. She has a monotone voice and is in the shadows, so whoever answers the door can’t really get a good look at her. Scarecrow does the most brutal kills, while Pin-Up often follows his lead. Pin-Up and Scarecrow appear to be a couple, based on their body language.

In “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” Ryan and Maya do all the nonsensical things that people in stupid horror movies do. One of the most idiotic decisions is during a scene when Ryan and Maya know that the home has been invaded. One of them finds Ryan’s cell phone inside the house but doesn’t use it to call for help and just plops the phone down on a table. In another scene, Ryan (who has asthma) loses his inhaler while trying to escape, but his asthma never becomes an issue and seems to magically disappear when he is running for his life or is frantically trying to free himself when he’s stuck somewhere in an enclosed space with the killers about to attack.

The performances by the movie’s cast members are nothing special. The screenplay is so lazy and formulaic, there is no real suspense. The last 15 minutes of the film are so bad, they’re almost laughable, although many viewers won’t be laughing if they waste time and money on this dreadfully weak horror flick. There’s an end-credits scene that looks absolutely ridiculous and will not create excitement for the next chapter in this limp story.

In the production notes for “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” director Harlin says of the movie’s three killers: “These are not robotic, masked madmen or madwomen. These are complex characters whose every move, expression, and act reflect the deeper threads and themes of the three movies.” Actually, the three masked killers in this movie are robotic and are not complex at all. (The man in this homicidal trio doesn’t even talk at all in the movie.) Speaking of masks, “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is nothing but a masquerade, pretending to be a terrifying horror story, when it’s just as hollow and soulless as the killers in the movie.

Lionsgate released “The Strangers: Chapter 1” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024.

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