The Strangers Rennyn Harlin
The Strangers. Photo Credit: John Armour

Renny Harlin directing the new horror movie The Strangers: Chapter 1 may seem like a departure if you know him as one of the great action directors — a filmmaker known for Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea, among other crowd pleasers. But he owes his start in Hollywood to horror. 

Harlin grew up in Finland, where his parents worked in the medical field and he developed a love of film as a young “movie date” to his mother, a fan of thrillers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. He broke into film by directing ads — “making a commercial forced me to tell a story in 30 seconds,” he says — and working in film marketing.

“When I was in film school,I saw this ad in the paper that this distribution chain in Finland was looking for a head of marketing. I knew nothing about marketing but I knew a lot about movies. I just went there, I was about 19, and said, ‘I love movies. What do you want me to do?’” 

The job took Harlin, now 65, to the American Film Market in 1982, and eventually to Cannes.  

“All I had to do was watch movies until I found movies for them to distribute,” he explains. “I would find these films and make a campaign for them. I would design the poster and the advertisements.”

He directed the 1986 Finnish film Born American and the 1987 American horror film Prison, with Viggo Mortensen and Kane Hodder, best known for playing Jason in the Friday the 13th franchise. Harlin also learned that A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, needed a director.

“I felt like this was a movie made for me. That I could give them something original and unique, even if it was the fourth in a series. The writers’ strike started when I first started talking to them,” he says. 

“They didn’t have a script, they couldn’t hire a writer. They didn’t have a director, but they had a release date, which is typical. Somehow, against all odds, I convinced them to hire me. I was some young guy from Finland and this was their big franchise. … My ideas were original enough. I just started storyboarding them. I gave them storyboards of these nightmare sequences. Finally, they just gave in and let me do it.”

He had a lifelong problem that turned into an advantage: persistent nightmares. He used them as inspiration. 

“I’ve suffered my whole life from nightmares. I have a crazy imagination that I experience during the day,” he says. “Then it comes into my dreams in some wild and crazy ways at night.”

Froy Gutierrez as Ryan and Madelaine Petsch as Maya in The Strangers Trilogy, a Lionsgate release. Photo by John Armour for Lionsgate.

Renny Harlin on Meeting The Strangers

Since his run of action hits in the ‘90s, which started with Die Hard 2, Harlin has returned occasionally to horror, including with 2004’s Exorcist: The Beginning. He has also worked on several Chinese and Chinese-American productions, including the 2016 Johnny Knoxville and Jackie Chan team-up Skiptrace

But the new Strangers marks a full-fledged return to nightmare territory. The original The Strangers, a home-invasion story from writer-director Bryan Bertino, starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, was followed by 2018’s The Strangers: Prey at Night

Harlin’s version, which stars Madelaine Petsch (Riverdale), Froy Gutierrez (Teen Wolf) and Gabriel Basso (The Night Agent), broadens the world of The Strangers and begins a trilogy. He shot all three films at once, over 54 days.

Harlin came aboard when producer Courtney Solomon approached him about a proposed project to answer questions that have burdened fans since the original film. 

“Courtney told me that in essence, Lionsgate wanted to make a movie that’s so expansive that the story will take the length of three movies to tell. But they are not traditional sequels in a sense. This is one story that we are telling, but in three parts,” Harlin says.

Harlin believes people go to the movies to feel a wide range of emotions in a safe, controlled environment. One of his favorite ways of doing that? 

“A wide lens is better for moving with or around the characters and revealing or not revealing something,” he says. “It’s a great way to create tension.”

The Strangers: Chapter 1 arrives in theaters Friday, from Lionsgate Films.

Main image: The Strangers: Chapter 1, directed by Renny Harlin. Photo by John Armour for Lionsgate.