I can’t for the life of me figure out what the hell we’re doing here.

Granted, modern horror films are low of budget and quick of screentime, so the notion of shooting a whole horror trilogy at once isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. But why The Strangers? Why Renny goddamn Harlin?

I went back and watched The Strangers (2008) last month, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would want to make a series out of this. Sure, it was profitable, but that’s hardly saying much regarding this particular genre. Oculus in 2013 made $44 million against a reported $5 million budget and it got a better critical reception than The Strangers did AND writer/director Mike Flanagan went on to a successful career like Bryan Bertino could only wish for, but I still don’t see anybody making a franchise out of that one.

(Side note: Seriously, Netflix or somebody, please give Flanagan whatever he wants or needs to get that franchise going.)

I know I said yesterday that we’re living in late-stage capitalism and there’s no such thing as a dead franchise, but The Strangers was released in 2008 and its sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, came out five years later to markedly diminished returns. Socrates give me the wisdom to figure out why this was worth rebooting for a full trilogy, and with all three movies released in the same year. And why it had to happen with this crew at the helm.

The original film was written/directed/produed by debut filmmaker Bryan Bertino, who only gets a story credit here. Instead, this script was written by the team of Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, whose most recent screenplay credit was… Due Date. A road comedy starring RDJ and Zach Galifianakis, riding the coattails of The Hangover. And it came out in 2010. What the high holy mother of fuck.

As for the director, Renny Harlin is a step up from Bertino because at least Harlin has prior experience as a director. Trouble is, Harlin’s career quite literally jumped the shark with Deep Blue Sea in 1999 and he hasn’t made anything memorable in the time since. And looking at his prior work, I seriously doubt anyone would argue that Die Hard 2 or A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master are the best entries in their respective franchises. Show me The Long Kiss Goodnight or Cliffhanger, and I’ll show you Cutthroat Island and Speechless. Harlin is a hack, and I’m sorry, he’s always been a hack.

With all of that established, I simply had to wait a week to get a good look at this train wreck. I’m honestly and overwhelmingly curious to see what the hell is going on here and what anyone thinks they’re doing with this.

We lay our scene in the fictional town of Venus, somewhere in the central Oregon boondocks. This is where we meet Maya and Ryan (respectively played by Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez) who are driving in to Portland so Maya can interview for a new job at some massive architecture firm. Their car breaks down so they have to stay at a local AirBnB for the night, and I already have so many questions that it makes me angry.

First of all, the film is set in Oregon and shot in Slovakia. Not even Washington or Vancouver BC or Northern California or anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. This was shot clear on the other side of the planet.

Secondly, where the hell are Maya and Ryan coming from? I know they’re not driving in from Spokane, because they wouldn’t be anywhere near Eugene and that’s supposed to be the nearest town. I know they’re not coming from Bend, because that’s a three-hour drive at most, it’s barely an inconvenience. People drive between Bend and Portland all the time, it’s a well-populated stretch of road where assistance would not be this difficult to come by. I know they’re not coming from Boise or any other metropolitan area out of state, because even the most dull-witted idiot would take a flight directly to PDX, especially for something as important as a job interview. And I know they’re not from any other podunk middle-of-nowhere town or these two characters wouldn’t be so aggressively coded as first-world modern-living yuppies.

I call horseshit on this whole premise. These filmmakers have no idea what the hell they’re doing. As if to prove the point further, there’s a later scene in which Maya invokes the state motto, “It’s better in Oregon.” Except the Oregon state motto is actually “She flies with her own wings.” Not once in my entire Willamette Valley life have I ever heard anyone say “it’s better in Oregon”, certainly not as any kind of rallying cry or cultural motto. With love from Portland and the great state of Oregon, I kindly invite these filmmakers to go fuck themselves.

All of that aside, let’s get to our nameless faceless antagonists. The central point of the Strangers is that they’re not out for money or any kind of agenda. They’re not looking for anything logical and they can’t be bartered with. They kill because it’s fun. That’s it. They are attacking our hapless victims simply because they happen to be there.

This is very much a primal fear rooted in the post-9/11 mindset, in which the cultural bogeyman was a Muslim jihadist who would leave no room for anyone to survive the simple misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Admittedly, there are some similarities to the modern cultural bogeyman of a mass shooter who could randomly decide to open fire on a school or a mall or a hospital or what have you. But the comparison is fatally flawed.

In the xenophobic case of the four-color Al-Qaeda strawman, there is a religious/cultural motivation at play. Even in the case of the modern mass shooter, the culprit typically has an agenda pertaining to white supremacy, or some other kind of bigotry, or maybe they’re suicidally depressed and they want to take themselves out with the biggest possible bang in the delusional hope that they may at least live on in infamy. (REMINDER: Seek help if you need it. The world is a better place with you in it, and your mental health matters.) As such, this depiction of killers with literally zero agenda or motivation is utterly useless to the point of counterproductive.

These killers have no identity or character development whatsoever. There is no reason or agenda behind their motivation. They are so perfectly capable of being exactly where they need to be and doing whatever they need to do that they are virtually invincible. As such, there is never the least illusion that our protagonists will survive.

These are Mary Sue villains, plain and simple. Not only does this destroy any kind of tension or horror in the plot, but it makes for a film that’s thematically repugnant. Hell, the film opens with a series of title cards that highlight the prevalence of “violent crime” in America — offering no kind of context or nuance or definitions in their statistics — all but shouting at us to be afraid of the world outside our doors.

What might be worst of all is that precisely because our villains are only in it for the lulz, their M.O. is to play with their intended victims for as long as possible. They never engage in direct violence beyond what’s strictly necessary to keep our leads in place and cut them off from help. Otherwise, they’re just kind of wandering around and looking scary. This actually makes our villains less scary because we know they’re not going to do anything until the closing minutes. And it makes our lead characters laughably weak as we watch them getting tricked and scared into making mistakes and hurting themselves.

If you’ve been paying attention and you read my review of The Strangers (2008), you might have noticed that these complaints seem oddly similar to what I logged for the earlier film. This brings me to another crucial problem: They’re more or less the exact same film. With a few minor exceptions (nearly all of which were in the trailers), all the major scares and plot points are practically identical to the 2008 film. Except they’re even worse.

In the original film, our lead characters were staying overnight after attending a wedding, so they had a legitimate reason for staying in the middle of nowhere. And they were staying in the summer cabin where the male lead spent most of his childhood, so it had an emotional resonance we don’t get with some stranger’s AirBnB. The random mid-movie kill isn’t a close friend of the male lead, but a total stranger. And so on and so forth.

But easily the most pivotal difference is that in the original film, the male lead went to so much trouble proposing to his girlfriend, who turned him down. Thus the two of them had a far more sympathetic and understandable reason to be in so much pain as they bicker and squabble at each other. Compare that to Chapter 1, in which our main characters are rounding out their five-year anniversary of dating and they seem perfectly happy and stable, even if they constantly snipe at each other and they can never seem to get on the same page regarding marriage.

With the first movie, the Strangers could be seen as a metaphor for the main characters’ domestic unhappiness. It’s thin, but it’s easily the most interesting thing the movie had going for it. With the reboot, that aspect has been watered down and defanged to the point where it barely registers. Instead, the filmmakers amped up the class disparity, hammering it home loud and clear that our two main characters are well-to-do urban folk driving their electric car through a one-horse town of unwashed boors. Eat a dick.

The upshot is that we’re stuck with characters who aren’t compelling or sympathetic enough that we can root for them or take joy in their victories. But at the same time, they’re not stupid or unlikeable enough that we can get any fun out of watching them suffer. And because they don’t really do anything to transgress — indeed, the whole point is that they’ve never done anything to deserve this suffering — there’s no lesson or theme to be gleaned from all this except that the world is a violent place and we should all be scared because there’s nothing to be done about it.

I started this review with the question of what we’re doing here, how this happened, and what anyone hoped to accomplish by making or watching this movie. Now, after watching The Strangers: Chapter 1, I’m left with more questions than answers.

This movie commits the worst crime any reboot or reimagining or sequel possibly could: It carries over everything that sucked about the original and nothing about it that worked. The reimagining only proves this whole franchise to be an inept fearmongering piece of witless cruelty that should’ve been left in obscurity with the last of the Dubya years. There is nothing funny, clever, intelligent, well-crafted, scary, or otherwise enjoyable about this movie. The characters are flat, the themes are practically nonexistent, and the scares and plot were carried over near-verbatim from a fifteen-year-old film.

Fuck this movie, fuck the next two movies, fuck this whole franchise, fuck Bryan Bertino, and fuck everyone who ever thought it was a good idea to try and bring this series back in a way that somehow made it unfathomably worse than it already was. Send Renny Harlin straight back to director jail and melt down the key.


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