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Warning: The following contains major spoilers for The Strangers, The Strangers: Prey At Night, and The Strangers: Chapter One.

Nothing sparks fear in the opening moments of a horror film like the words “based on actual events.” Many horror fans find comfort in reminding ourselves that “it’s just a movie,” but this ominous disclaimer smashes the illusion. Bryan Bertino’s landmark home invasion film, The Strangers, begins with a similar assertion, setting the stage for a night of pure terror. Ominous text delivers upsetting statistics of random crime before introducing us to the film’s victims.

Renny Harlin’s 2024 prequel The Strangers: Chapter One begins with a similar warning, but ups the ante by calculating the number of violent crimes that have occurred since the opening frame. It’s the perfect way to introduce stories designed to upend our collective understanding of personal safety.

Both films follow a trio of masked intruders who terrorize a couple vacationing in a remote house. Before Harlin’s film, these murderous Strangers were last seen tormenting a doomed family at a deserted trailer park in Johannes Roberts’ The Strangers: Prey At Night. Known as a variation of Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and the Man in the Mask, these killers employ a bevy of sinister tricks all beginning with a knock on the door late at night. But which knock is the scariest?

And which ushers in the more terrifying film? 

‘The Strangers’

The Strangers opens with a frantic 911 call and glimpses of a brutal crime scene. Two boys walking bikes tentatively enter a suburban house and find rose petals scattered amidst bloody knives and dead bodies. They frantically call for help as Bertino flashes through disturbing images from this brutal crime scene. 

Roberts skips the opening preamble and cuts straight to a familiar knock on a suburban street. Awakened from sleep, an older woman peers out the window at a strange truck idling in her driveway. She turns to find Dollface (Emma Bellomy) watching her from the corner. We don’t yet see the old woman’s fate, but moments later, the masked Stranger is petting her dog and laying down next to her sleeping husband. 

The Strangers: Chapter 1 begins with a previous victim. A harried man runs through the woods chased by the three masked Strangers. As he falls to the ground, they slowly approach and attack with an ax. 

Winner: The Strangers

Nothing can replicate the sunny horror of Bertino’s quiet street and the remnants of a brutal crime. This ominous opening perfectly introduces a film that will reinvent the cinematic concept of random violence.

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

Bertino’s story begins with heartbreak. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are returning from a wedding reception with tears in their eyes. She’s just rejected his proposal and they’ve returned to a house filled with rose petals and champagne. After an awkward hour, the couple finally seems to be reconnecting. Poised for a romantic interlude, they’re interrupted by a knock at the door. A mysterious young woman standing in the shadows asks, “Is Tamara home?” 

Harlin’s couple, Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) and Maya (Madelaine Petsch), are stranded at a similar cabin while waiting out car trouble. Resigned to make the best of this delay, they’re also kissing when they hear a knock at the door. Standing in shadows, the Stranger repeats the ominous question and seems dissatisfied with the answer she receives. It’s only after she’s run off into the darkness that he realizes the porch light bulb has been unscrewed. 

Roberts swaps the couple for a troubled family. Parents Mike (Martin Henderson) and Cindy (Christina Hendricks) are driving across the country to take their troubled daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to boarding school. They stop for the night at a deserted trailer park managed by relatives and look for a distraction to break the tension. When the knock comes, these parents briefly worry about the strange teen at the door, but assume she’ll find her way back home. 

Winner: The Strangers: Chapter 1

The franchise’s calling card, this scene becomes more terrifying with each repetition. By the time Ryan answers the door, the Stranger’s message carries the horrific weight of two previous films. We know exactly what her question means and what’s in store for the doomed couple. 

‘The Strangers’

With James gone for cigarettes, the knocks become more insistent. Anxiously waiting alone, Kristen notices the room filling with smoke from the fireplace. Someone has closed the chimney flue. She scrambles to turn off the smoke alarm and leaves it on the floor. Moments later, Kristen is standing in the kitchen when we notice a man with a burlap sack over his head watching from a darkened doorway. When she turns around, the Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks) is gone, but the broken smoke alarm has been placed in a nearby chair.

After discovering the bodies of her aunt and uncle, Kinsey and Cindy run back to their cabin and find their smashed phones gathered on the table. While Cindy fumbles with a cracked screen, Kinsey turns around to see Dollface approaching from another room. She chases them into the bathroom, breaks down the door, then stabs the screaming mother in the back as she helps her daughter escape. 

Maya is alone in the unfamiliar house when the power goes out. Using her phone as a flashlight, she searches for the fuse box and finds a closet filled with ominous masks. After dropping her phone, she stands up to find Pin-Up Girl (Letizia Fabbri) lurking just inches away. 

Winner: The Strangers

While Harlin gets points for jumping straight into violence, nothing compares with the horror of seeing the Man in his scarecrow-like mask first emerge from the shadows. It’s nearly impossible to watch this scene and not wonder if a clandestine figure has ever stared at you from a dark corner of your own home. 

‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’

Harlin creates a similar scene as Maya waits alone for Ryan’s return. She passes the time by playing Moonlight Sonata on the upright piano. Focusing on the keys, Maya doesn’t notice the masked Man (Matus Lajcak) reflected in the mirror above her head. He sits behind her enjoying the concert and – true to form – when she looks up, he’s gone. 

When Kristen first sees the masked man gazing in through the window, she recoils and bumps into the record player. This collision causes an unnerving skip that plays a snippet of a country western song over and over again as the front door slowly opens. It’s difficult to tell what’s more nerve-wracking, the continuous repetition of this cheery record or the moment when an unseen figure finally turns it off. 

While hiding in an abandoned trailer, Kinsey hears faint squeaking coming from a child’s bedroom. She follows the sound and finds a jack-in-the-box lying on the floor. Kinsey activates the toy and stares in horror as Dollface also pops out from under a blanket. The psychotic Stranger slashes Kinsey with the knife, but luckily her brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) bursts into the room wielding a gun. 

Winner: The Strangers

It’s difficult to find words for how unsettling this record skip is. Kristen has been pulled from a serene world of gentle music and soft candlelight into a waking nightmare. These harsh and abrasive sounds provide an element of destabilization while ripping away our sense of safety. The world has turned on its axis and no one can predict what will happen next. 

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

Refusing to believe Kristen really saw intruders, James walks outside and finds his windshield smashed. Unsettled, he climbs in on the driver’s side, then reaches for cigarettes on the passenger seat’s floor. As he sifts through shards of glass, we see a strange hand emerge from the backseat and reach for his shoulder. Perhaps sensing a presence, James spins around and brandishes a knife, but finds that he’s alone in the ruined car. 

The Man pulls off a similar trick while Maya takes a shower. As she steps towards the water, we see this masked Stranger standing just inches away on the other side of the glass. He’s gone a moment later along with any proof that he was ever there. 

As Kinsey runs from the Man’s truck, she takes refuge in a large pipe on the playground. Unable to enter, he shines his high beams on the terrified girl. We believe she’s safe for the moment, but Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin) suddenly emerges from the darkness of the pipe and whispers, “we’ve only just begun.” 

Winner: The Strangers: Prey at Night

All three moments represent traditional horror fare, but Pin-Up Girl manages to evoke a genuine scream. It’s not only startling to realize a killer has been lurking just inches away, but her whispered promise tells Kinsey she’s only alive because they’ve chosen not to kill her … yet. 

‘The Strangers’

Ryan returns and calms Maya down with a plausible alternative to intruders in the home. They sit down to eat and resolve to put the scare behind them. But as Ryan sloshes ketchup all over his plate, another red substance drips onto the table. They look up and see a recently mutilated bird hanging from a light fixture over their heads.

Fed up with the Strangers’ tricks, James and Kristen decide to leave. As they hurry to the front door, an ax smashes through the heavy wood. The Man continues to chop through the door as the frightened couple scramble to barricade it with the piano. James fumbles with his father’s shotgun and just misses shooting the Man through the passageway’s jagged hole. 

Luke (Lewis Pullman) is consoling his sister Kinsey as they walk through the empty park. Arriving at their relatives’ cabin, they’re surprised to see the front door standing open. The siblings wander into the trailer and find ominous words scrawled on the bedroom window. While Luke puzzles over the bizarre message, Kinsey spies something covered with a bloody sheet. Pulling back the blanket, they slowly uncover the mutilated bodies of their aunt and uncle. 

Winner: The Strangers

This terrifying moment raises the stakes of a so-far eerie film. Before this point we could write the Strangers off as stalkers hoping to scare an unlucky couple. But the moment the ax breaches the door-frame, we know they plan to cause irreversible harm. 

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

With the Strangers having entered the house, Ryan and Maya look for refuge in the dusty crawlspace. They’re silently creeping through the mouse-filled dirt when Maya impales her hand  on a rusty nail. With Pin-Up Girl directly overhead, she’s forced to suffer in silence as Ryan pulls out the nail and bandages her hand. 

After hours of psychological torture, Kristen manages to escape detection and hides in the kitchen pantry. She watches through the wooden slats as the Man wanders through the darkened room. Believing she’s safe, Kristen leans forward to peer through the cracks, but Dollface appears just inches away and begins trying to break through the flimsy door. 

Running for help, Luke finds himself cornered in the park’s office and pool area. He thwarts an attack from Pin-Up Girl then stabs her to death with her own knife. But moments later, the Man (Damian Maffei) drags his ax across the concrete floor. Luke evades swipes from this powerful blade and both young men fall into the pool, fighting for possession of a large carving knife. As Luke wades out of the water, the Man stabs him in the back and leaves him to bleed to death under the neon palm trees. Fortunately, Kinsey returns just in time to drag her brother out of the water. 

Winner: The Strangers: Prey at Night

This is a clear victory. One of the most lauded horror set pieces of the 21st century, Roberts’ sequence has it all: a fantastic needle drop, a cathartic kill, an ax-wielding maniac, buckets of blood, and a last-second turn that propels us toward an explosive finale. 

‘The Strangers’

As James hunkers down with the shotgun, his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) arrives to offer support for his heartbroken friend. When a rock smashes through his window, Mike cautiously approaches the disheveled house. He creeps down the hall as the Man silently follows and raises the ax. Before he can strike, Mike steps in front of the open doorway and James reacts by firing the shotgun. A moment later, he realizes the man now dying in the hallway is not wearing a mask, but a suit from the wedding they just attended. 

Ryan makes a similar mistake when he accidentally shoots the owner of the Airbnb approaching the front door. Roberts once again ups the ante by placing a cop in the role of sacrificial savior. As Kinsey tries to explain what’s happening to a young officer, Dollface creeps up behind him and slits his throat. Adding to the horror, Kinsey tries to drive away in his police jeep, but Dollface waves to her with the keys just outside the passenger door. 

Winner: The Strangers

This is the moment where Bertino’s film goes from merely eerie to devastating and horrific. Not only is the promise of help ripped away, James must cope with the fact that he killed his best friend. Few surprises in horror will ever feel so brutal or abrupt. 

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

Finally making it to the car, James and Kristen prepare to leave, but headlights appear in the driveway behind them. Pin-Up Girl (Laura Margolis) rams them from behind the wheel as the Man stares them down from in front of the car. The frightened couple jump out and run back to the house. There will be no escape.

Ryan and Maya suffer a more destructive collision while trying to drive away. This time the truck strikes over and over again, crumpling their jeep and pinning Ryan behind the wheel. Maya is forced to run off without him and leaves her boyfriend to square off against the Man now standing with an ax on the vehicle’s hood.

Adding heartbreak to this scenario, Luke and Mike have made it to the car and are moments away from escaping the park. But as they drive around looking for Kinsey, something smashes into the windshield, causing the car to careen off the road. Crashing headfirst into a trailer, Mike is impaled by a plank and trapped in the car. Luke reluctantly leaves to get help and a moment later, the Man casually climbs into the passenger seat. 

Winner: The Strangers: Prey at Night

Of all the deaths in this frightening franchise, Mike’s demise is arguably the most gut-wrenching. 

Not only has this father just found his wife’s body, he’s mortally wounded and trapped just inches away from the person responsible for her death. The Man takes his time with this kill, turning on the radio then slowly stabbing Mike with a screwdriver. He’s clearly savoring the moment and drawing out this upsetting death. 

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

As Kristen hobbles from the shed, she catches a disturbing glimpse out of the corner of her eye: James’s car engulfed in flames. Her only escape is now on foot and she’s just injured her ankle running through the dark. The Strangers begin to close in on her as she rapidly loses hope. Ryan and Maya face similar despair when they run to a working motorcycle and watch it explode in front of their eyes. 

Kinsey finds more success when she finally gets the dead cop’s keys, but the truck shines its high beams once again. Building up speed, it rams the car but gets stuck in the extremity of the collision. Kinsey exits the car and notices gas dripping onto the pavement. She throws a lighter onto the puddle and watches both cars erupt in flames. She turns to walk away, but we see the burning truck dislodge itself and head her way. 

Winner: The Strangers: Prey at Night

Sometimes the subtle scare is more effective, but this bombastic scene explodes into sheer terror. We believe Kinsey is safe and allow her a victorious walk away. However, the Man cannot be stopped. In a nod to Halloween II, he follows her consumed in flames as she begins to run. The amazing needle drop – Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” – is just icing on the cake. 

‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’

Seperated in the woods, Maya hides under a pile of leaves while attempting to call for help. Stretching for a signal, she comes face to face with a rotting corpse – the man we saw murdered in the opening scene. Meanwhile, Ryan is roaming the woods when he stumbles upon Pin-Up Girl. He points a rifle at her head and threatens to shoot, but the fearless killer just laughs in his face. Before he can follow through, the Man appears out of nowhere and hits him with a blunt object.

Referencing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Kinsey flags down a passing truck and begs for help. A concerned woman greets her before retreating in fear. The Man, now severely burned, is approaching with the ax. She climbs into the truck bed and grabs a handy baseball bat. Connecting with the side of his head, she knocks the Man backwards onto the road then enjoys a well-deserved sigh of relief. 

Back in the house, Kristen hears James screaming from another room. She ventures out into the hallway and the Man abruptly slams her into the wall. Dazed, she tries to grasp onto something as he slowly drags her past Mike’s body. 

Winner: The Strangers

This brutal hit comes out of nowhere and manages to top a film full of shocking moments. Watching Kristen struggle to maintain consciousness and find a handhold as she’s slowly dragged to certain death is not only heartbreaking but terrifying as well. The camera stays with her as she glides past Mike’s body, a horrific example of what awaits if she cannot break free. 

The Strangers Chapter 1 review

‘The Strangers: Chapter 1’

James and Kristen may have survived the night, but the sun brings no safety. Tied to chairs, they sit in front of the Strangers and beg to know why they’re doing this. The nightmarish reply is arguably more frightening than anything we’ve seen: “Because you were home.” Finished with the game, the Strangers take turns stabbing the couple, circling their victims and savoring their dying screams. 

Ryan wakes up in a similar position. Maya yells at the attackers and receives a variation of this upsetting answer: “Because you were here.” They grasp hands as the Strangers stab them in the abdomen, then kick over their chairs and leave them for dead. 

After a brutal night, Kinsey finds herself in a position of power over Dollface. Having mortally wounded her with a shotgun blast, she removes the girl’s mask and stares at a teenager just like her. Demanding a reason for the deaths of her parents, Kinsey is stunned when the dying girl simply asks, “why not?” 

Winner: The Strangers

The catharsis of Kinsey’s kill may be powerful, but Bertino’s chilling conclusion is iconic. After opening the curtains, each of the Strangers removes their masks, clearly showing that the game is over. James and Kristen have lost. Rather than extreme gore, Bertino amplifies the terror by cutting to images of the suburban street. We’re forced to hear the couple’s final moments while wondering what horrors may be lurking on similar streets. Each film delivers a stinger ending, but nothing can match the matter-of-fact horror of this upsetting scene. 

  • The Strangers – 7
  • The Strangers: Prey at Night – 4
  • The Strangers: Chapter 1 – 1

Bigger and bolder may be exciting, but it’s difficult to top the simplicity of Bertino’s harrowing film. The Strangers wrings terror from the illusion of suburban safety and remains one of the most chilling horror films of all time. 

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’

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