Review: 'The Strangers – Chapter 1' is a rote rehash that lacks the original film's creepy suspense

“The Strangers – Chapter 1” is the third film in an ongoing franchise, following the surprise hit of 2008’s “The Strangers” and its diminishing-returns 2018 sequel, “The Strangers: Prey at Night.” The new film is also the first of three movies shot concurrently and intended to be released within the next year.

Director Renny Harlin, new to the series, is no stranger to sequels, with a long resume that includes “Die Hard 2” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” There is a journeyman’s proficiency to “Chapter 1” but little in the way of real spark.

Young couple Maya (Madelaine Petsch, also an executive producer) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are on a road trip across the country so Maya can interview for a job at an architecture firm in Portland. After a bit of car trouble, they find themselves unexpectedly staying the night at a remote Airbnb in a small Oregon town. A stranger knocks on their door asking for someone who isn’t there and they soon find themselves besieged by a man and two women, all wearing eccentric masks.

The wittiest moment comes just a few minutes in when a title card declares how many violent crimes have occurred in America since the film began. There is little else in the movie that signals that kind of self-awareness aside from scattered acknowledgment of elements lifted from the first film, such as a specific song by Joanna Newsom on a record player. The most visually inventive idea in the entire movie is the placement of the camera inside a refrigerator as Gutierrez sets a six-pack of beer down and his face remains perfectly framed by the bottles.

Before the masked invaders have fully launched their attack, Maya and Ryan enjoy a post-coital cuddle on the sofa of their sketchy rental place, with Maya wearing only a shirt that skims the top of her thighs. Ryan goes into town under some pretense or another — there is much needless business in the film about a missing inhaler — leaving Maya by herself. As the Strangers methodically begin their sordid work, Maya hangs out, smokes pot, checks the door and noodles on a piano. Rather than wanting to scream for her to look out for what’s behind her, audiences may want to shout for her to just put on some pants.

The first “Strangers” movie had an air of creepy suspense, as the besieged couple often looked off into blank space, bringing an unnerving tension to what was often nothing. The new film never conjures the same feelings of rustic menace.

“The Strangers – Chapter 1” ends with a — spoiler alert! — title card that reads “To Be Continued.” (Plus a brief mid-credits stinger scene.) Building out the mythology of the attackers or making this anything other than a brief, inexplicable and random encounter, as the subsequent films apparently promise to do, diminishes the core terror of the essential premise of the first film, that sometimes bad things just happen.

There is a strange courage to assuming that your horror sequel will demand/deserve two more outings. Wanting audiences to sit through a warmed-over rehash of a preexisting film to get to even the possibility of something new in the story of the upcoming installments feels like a big ask.

The original “Strangers” made the walk to the parking lot after feel weird, or inspired some securing of doors and windows at home. Not so with the rote stylings of the new film. The knock at the door of “The Strangers – Chapter 1” can simply go unanswered.

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