“Is Tamara here?” In May of 2008, those three words hung in the air with foreboding menace (along with “because you were home”) as Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers played in theaters and shocked moviegoers like myself with its straightforward approach to home invasion horror and random violence. Now, 16 years later, the masked murderers now known as Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and Scarecrow are back on the big screen in The Strangers – Chapter 1, the first film in a new trilogy and the third movie overall in the franchise (the most recent being 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night). More of a relaunched expansion of the franchise rather than a full-on remake of the original movie, The Strangers – Chapter 1 still retreads a lot of the first film’s frights, but it does so effectively while weaving in its own intriguing story threads, delivering a promising start to a new trilogy of terror for those willing to answer that familiar foreboding knock on their door.

Young couple Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) are taking a cross-country road trip to Portland for Maya’s architect job interview when they take a detour for a quick bite at a diner in the small town of Venus. The locals (including Richard Brake as the sheriff) don’t take too kindly to these strangers from the city, practically ridiculing the couple for celebrating five years of dating without actually being married and turning their noses up at Maya’s vegetarian lifestyle. They do, however, help the couple get settled into a local rentable cabin in the woods when their car won’t start while trying to leave the diner (what could go wrong?). The repairs will take a day, so they’ll just have to spend the night in their secluded spot, giving Maya and Ryan a chance a night to ponder their potential future together… a future that is threatened to be cut violently short when three masked murderers gradually make their menacing presences known, including a woman who is looking for the enigmatic Tamara.

If, like me, you’re a massive fan of Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, then some of these plot elements might sound familiar, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, the screenplay for this new Strangers trilogy clocked in at more than 280 pages, with Chapter 1 essentially being the first third of one giant movie (with the type of Titanic-esque runtime that needed two VHS tapes at Blockbuster back in the day). This first installment of the trilogy is a welcoming gateway into the franchise for newcomers and a solid reintroduction for fans of the first film, as Cohen and Freedland mix in plenty of homages to Bertino’s original movie (such as the gut-wrenching shotgun scene) while also incorporating their own twists into the proceedings (including one particularly creepy moment that will have me looking at ketchup differently from now on).

While at times maybe a bit too familiar, the scares in Cohen and Freedland’s script are always brought to life with infectious energy by director Renny Harlin, who puts his previous experience at directing ambitious action (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2) and imaginative horror (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Deep Blue Sea) to great use throughout The Strangers – Chapter 1, maximizing the masked mayhem of Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and Scarecrow. Harlin and cinematographer José David Montero crank up the tension with their eclectic camerawork, using a mix of claustrophobic close-ups and ominous wide shots of the woods (filming among the towering trees of Slovokia) to maintain a near-constant sense of unease, with one of the masked murderers always seeming to be lurking just out of frame—or on the other side of the shower door. While not as subtly spooky as the original, this more in-your-face approach provides plenty of jump scares that pack a scary punch—especially with a game audience.

As the main targets of these jump scares, Madelaine Petsch (who also executive produces the film) and Froy Gutierrez anchor the movie with powerful performances and great chemistry as a couple at a very crucial crossroads in their lives. They bring a lived-in relatability to their characters that resonates before that first pivotal knock on the cabin door, and when the knives come out and their night becomes a fight for survival, there’s an urgency and intensity to their performances that always feels authentic and never feels forced. Petsch is a force to be reckoned with and Gutierrez taps into a rageful survival mode, with both of the actors boldly taking viewers along for a bloody ride with plenty of bumps and bruises (and one very painful nail impalement) along the way.

Ultimately, your mileage may vary for The Strangers – Chapter 1 depending on how familiar you are with the first film and what your expectations are for its storyline coming into this latest entry of the franchise. As someone who loves the original movie (as well as Prey at Night), I found a lot to enjoy in Chapter 1—both the new and familiar elements—and I’m stoked to see where the story goes next. While it may be difficult to fully gauge what is essentially the first third of one big movie, Chapter 1 is nevertheless an ambitious start to a new trilogy of terror, and I’ll be answering the door when Chapter 2 comes knocking… even if I still don’t know who Tamara is.

Movie Score: 3.5/5

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.