Getting To Know You 

Directed by Renny Harlin

Starring Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Richard Brake

Released May 17th, 2024

Rated R

It’s a small tradition in horror films to have a title card claiming that what you are about to see is based on a true story. That claim was made at the beginning of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 movie The Strangers, but as far as I can tell it only refers to the fact that there have been murders without clear motive committed throughout history. That 2008 film, which Bertino wrote and directed, featured Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler (a quintessential mid-2000s cast!), and was well-received by some horror fans, but not by me. I considered it a lesser riff on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and I wasn’t a fan of that film (or its remake) either. A decade later, Johannes Roberts directed a sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, based on a story by Bertino. I didn’t bother to watch it, given that I had disliked the first film. 

Six years later I heard that a new trilogy of films with these characters was on the horizon, and I decided to revisit the first film and watch the second before taking in the new installments. One fine Wednesday afternoon I took in a double feature, and I was shocked to find that the 2008 film really worked for me this time. The couple we meet (played by Speedman and Tyler) is already in a bad place before the terror begins. It’s dour, bleak, and perfectly paced, quick and to the bloody point at only eighty-five minutes in length. I see now how influential The Strangers has been to modern horror. 

One of the more frightening aspects of the first film is the random nature of the crime, so it can be odd to follow the killers as they stalk their next target in the sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. In this film we meet a family in disarray who will become the prey of the strangers, with Baliee Madison as the final girl. There were some stylistic choices I didn’t care for, notably playing upbeat music when awful things are happening (that juxtaposition is played out) but the denouement upends expectations expertly. The last act is brutal, surprising, and features a nice homage to the ending of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Renny Harlin, the journeyman director behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and Cliffhanger, now brings us The Strangers: Chapter 1, the first in an upcoming trilogy of films featuring the masked killers known as Scarecrow, Dollface, and Pin Up Girl. Harlin filmed all three movies simultaneously; Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are set to be released sometime over the next year. Though it’s fair to say The Strangers: Chapter 1 is thematically similar to Bryan Bertino’s 2008 film The Strangers, it is not a tired re-tread or needless remake. The screenplay by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland (based on a story by Bertino) brings us engaging characters and fresh locations, tense situations, and a chilling, spooky vibe. The Strangers: Chapter 1 is also visually interesting, even more so than The Strangers: Prey at Night. It’s fair to say I am now a fan of this very frightening series. 

You can get an Airbnb anywhere, even in Venus, Oregon. That’s where Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) find themselves when their car breaks down on their way to their final destination. They discover their car won’t start after eating at a diner filled with shady locals. The creepy townies suggest the couple stay the night at a cabin in the woods that’s sometimes used as an Airbnb. The creepy mechanic at the shady garage says he’ll have their car in working order come morning. 

Small towns off the beaten path can be terrifying, and The Strangers: Chapter 1 emphasizes this with a nice supporting cast that I hope we see more of in the upcoming chapters. Unlike the couple in the 2008 film or the family in the 2018 film, Maya and Ryan are in a good place, though maybe Maya is annoyed that Ryan hasn’t proposed to her after five years of dating. They’re a cute young couple that are easy to root for, even as we know that horrible things are coming their way. Madelaine Petsch not only stars in the film, but she is also an executive producer who will be featured in the next two installments, so you can expect this striking redhead to escape the murderers for now. 

Director Harlin brings an old school style to the film, with gory practical effects and superb pacing. It’s refreshing to see a modern horror film that doesn’t rely on digital blood effects. The decision to set a portion of the movie in the woods allows cinematographer José David Montero to break out the fog lights, adding to the 1980s horror flick aesthetic on display. The Strangers: Chapter 1 doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s setting up a trilogy of films. It works well as a standalone scare, though the cliffhanger ending is unsatisfyingly abrupt. On the (doll) face of it, the films in this series seem similar. But when you dig deeper, they are all pretty different, and that makes me excited to see where the next two films will lead. 

The Strangers: Chapter 1 has some funny moments, decent dialogue, believable situations, and builds tension better than most American horror films I’ve seen lately. After I watched a late-night screening of the film, I was in the movie theater’s parking lot starting up my car when I saw something standing right next to my driver’s side window. Alone in the darkness, I screamed. It was a trash can. Take that as a recommendation for The Strangers: Chapter 1.