‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’ Review: Tamara Isn’t Here, and Neither Are the Scares

Bryan Bertino’s 2008 horror classic “The Strangers” was not unlike Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition: Its chief weapon was surprise. Surprise and fear. And ruthless efficiency. It came from out of nowhere and it scared the bejeezus out of us, with a methodical story about masked mystery maniacs who invade the home of a miserable romantic couple. It might seem like that would be an easy formula to duplicate but Renny Harlin’s misguided misfire “The Strangers: Chapter 1” proves otherwise.

There’s something important about “The Strangers” that Harlin’s movie fails to understand. The title doesn’t just refer to the murderers. The protagonists are in a relationship but had just found out they didn’t really know each other, and they’re on the verge of breaking up when The Strangers arrive. They were already miserable and somehow their day got worse. Much like “Psycho” exploited our feelings of vulnerability while were in the shower, “The Strangers” exploited our vulnerability during an emotional crisis, something the excellent sequel “The Strangers: Prey at Night” capitalized on with its tale of a bickering family who get attacked in a trailer park.

The biggest difference between the original and Renny Harlin’s reboot is that this time, the couple — Maya (Madelaine Petsch, “Polaroid”) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez, “Hocus Pocus 2”) — have no problems at all. They’re as happy as pigs in slop. They’re on a road trip through Oregon, joking and flirting the whole time. They’ve been dating for five years and their biggest point of contention is whether to get married or just live together for the rest of their lives without doing any of the paperwork.

And since “The Strangers: Chapter 1” follows the same structure as the original, that means that for half the movie, while we wait for the Strangers to show up, nothing happens. Oh sure, there are incidents. The car breaks down and they have to find an Airbnb in a small town. He loses his inhaler. She has trouble finding vegan food, because there are no vegans in [checks notes] Oregon. But that’s not drama and it’s not even conflict. It’s tedious filler.

Maya and Ryan are some of the lousiest horror protagonists in recent memory. They have no personality to speak of and they’re useless in a clutch. The problem isn’t that they act like they’ve never seen a scary movie before, although I suspect that they haven’t. The problem is they have no survival instincts at all, and that makes them impossible to relate to. A bunch of armed murderers break into their cabin so they run upstairs to the bedroom and just stare at the door, which they’ve barricaded with one cabinet so small a housecat could knock it over. They don’t look for escape routes. They don’t look for weapons. They aren’t even visibly panicking. For a large portion of this movie they just look confused, like they nobody’s told them what to do.

It’s not the actors’ fault. They have dreadful material. Nothing matters until the killers attack, and they don’t attack for a very long time. And when they do, their victims aren’t allowed to act like human beings. And somehow it gets worse because the killers are just going through the motions. It’s a pat retread of all the violence from the original film, with no emotional investment and no creativity in the mayhem department.

Which is baffling, because this is Renny Harlin we’re talking about. Before he directed hits like “Die Hard 2” and “Cliffhanger” he made a name for himself with horror films like “Prison” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master,” which were inventive, energetic and weird. Words that could not be used to describe “The Strangers: Chapter 1.”

There’s no ingenuity on display in “The Strangers: Chapter 1.” It’s a rote, by-the-numbers home invasion thriller, with half-hearted “cabin in the woods” clichés thrown in for bad measure. This is the first film in a pre-planned trilogy, with two more installments already shot and waiting in the wings. It would be nice to think that “Chapter 1” is luring us into a false sense of security and the sequels will rip the rug out, and send the franchise in different directions. Stranger things have happened, but after watching this movie there’s no reason to assume these filmmakers are capable of “stranger” things.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” opens exclusively in theaters on May 17.

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