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The Strangers: Chapter 1

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2008’s “The Strangers” didn’t seem like the kind of film that would produce a series when it was released. But it’s about to explode into precisely that with the release of “The Strangers Trilogy,” three films directed by Renny Harlin that serve as sort of a remake but also a prequel to the Bryan Bertino hit. In the 2008 film, an average couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, found themselves terrorized in a remote vacation home by three masked strangers. It’s an effective piece of genre filmmaking—as is the lesser-but-solid sequel “The Strangers: Prey at Night”—partly because there is no explanation for the terror. When Tyler’s Kristen wants to know why she’s being attacked, Gemma Ward’s Dollface memorably replies, “Because you were home.” What’s more terrifying than random brutality? And why would anyone think we need to fill in the back stories of the Man in the Mask, Pin-Up Girl, and Dollface?

I don’t usually believe in knocking a film (or trilogy, in this case) merely on concept alone. It’s possible that the other two chapters in this trilogy, reportedly to be released within the next year, won’t fill in the blanks in a way that drains the power from one of the things that made “The Strangers” a hit. Honestly, I don’t know yet because “The Strangers: Chapter 1” is essentially a remake of Bertino’s film, ending with a post-credits tag scene that hints at a potentially more ambitious second chapter. This one largely goes through the motions of a horror remake, often feeling like a faded copy of the first film. Harlin injects it with a bit of his workman craft—he knows how to do this in his sleep; one wishes it didn’t make viewers drowsy, too.

Maya (Madelaine Petsch of “Riverdale” fame) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are traveling across the country when they take a wrong turn and end up in the kind of small town that’s not on most of the GPS systems. When they stop at a diner to get a meal, they meet some of the locals, including a Sheriff played by genre legend Richard Brake, who I have to believe plays a bigger role in chapters 2 and 3 because it’s a cameo here. More importantly, the creepy mechanics who see Maya and Ryan pull in clearly meddle with their vehicle because it won’t start when the couple gets back in it. Told the part to fix it won’t be in tonight, Maya and Ryan are pointed to an AirBnB on the edge of town where cell service is bad and shadowy figures lurk in the woods. You can guess what happens next.

Unlike a lot of DTV horror sequels over the years, Harlin brings a certain level of craft to “The Strangers: Chapter 1.” He likes to walk right up to the expected jump scare and then turn back, keeping viewers on their toes by not releasing the tension with a shout. The mid-section, wherein the masked trio seem to be almost supernaturally able to appear and disappear in the background of a frame just quickly enough that Maya doesn’t spot them, is actually effective; not up to the standards of the other two films in this series but better than a lot of home invasion junk out there. There’s a particularly effective shot with Maya at the piano, where Harlin and his team make great use of the mirror above it.

The problem is that we’ve seen this all before—like, literally—and there’s too little actual tension once Maya and Ryan realize they’re in serious trouble. The film falls apart when the hunt leaves the home and enters the poorly lit woods outside. The team here just doesn’t have the technical acumen to make these sequences work—they’re much better in the defined space of the house than the loose geography outside—and it makes all of “The Strangers: Chapter 1” feel more like an obligation before the team is allowed to break the mold in the next two films, which were shot concurrently with this one.

Once we’re able to see Harlin’s new trilogy as a whole, “Chapter 1” might feel more essential to the 4.5-hour experience. Right now, it just feels overly familiar.

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