Interview | Renny Harlin on The Strangers: Chapter 1

the strangers chapter 1 renny harlin
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Ahead of the release of The Strangers: Chapter 1, we chat to director Renny Harlin about reimagining one of the most beloved modern horror films. 

When The Strangers, Bryan Bertino’s low-budget horror film, was released in 2008, it immediately burrowed itself under my skin. In the film, a couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, are stalked by masked assailants, who seemingly have no motive for tormenting the couple. The film was a massive hit and has earned itself a firm, deserved cult status. 

16 years after the release of Bertino’s film, Finnish director Renny Harlin is attempting the impossible. He has taken the basic premise of The Strangers, kept the name and turned it into an ambitious trilogy of his own. 

The film follows Maya (played by Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (played by Froy Gutierrez) on a road trip across the country. They pull over to a remote town for some food, but are stuck there for the night after their car breaks down. Soon, they find themselves as prey to a trio of masked attackers.

As The Strangers: Chapter 1 arrives in cinemas, we chat to Harlin about taking such a beloved film and bringing it to new audiences. 

I assume the original The Strangers is close to your heart. 

Yes, very much so. I saw it about 15 years ago. I didn’t know what to expect and I was blown away. Showing the insanity of violence, that you don’t always need a motive, some people can just do something like this and things like this happen all the time, at least in America… I was really impressed by it. 

When I was offered the chance [to make The Strangers: Chapter 1], I was scared to tackle such a classic. But as I read the script, I realised this wasn’t a sequel or a remake, but a reimagining. The story of the original film is the foundation for this epic, four-and-a-half hour story that we divided into three chapters. That’s when I realised that there’s an opportunity here to dig much deeper into these characters, the story and the themes than what a normal film would give you. 

the strangers chapter 1 (1)
Credit: Lionsgate

Horror is familiar to you, you’ve done Nightmare On Elm Street, The Exorcist, Deep Blue Sea, which is my personal favourite. I really wanted to be a marine biologist after watching it. 

I just filmed a new film in New Zealand which comes out probably early next year. It’s called Deep Water and it’s the ultimate shark film. 

What about horror interests you as a filmmaker and storyteller?

It comes from my childhood. I was a big film fan, I got that from my mum, who was very into thrillers. She loved Hitchcock. One of the first film memories I have is going to watch Rosemary’s Baby in the cinema when I was seven or eight years old. I read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes stories. I had a really bourgeois, safe upbringing at home but I lived in the world of horror. 

I also drew my own comics, and there were always skeletons and scary stuff in them. There’s something cathartic about being able to imagine these terrible things in your mind. I’ve always had nightmares, from a very young age. I can imagine these things, but my life is safe and sound. There’s a balance. 

the strangers chapter 1 Madelaine Petsch Froy Gutierrez
Credit: Lionsgate

You shot all three films in just a couple months… How did you pull that off?

We shot for like 53 days. The idea was that we’re making a 4.5 hour story, nothing was shot separately. On Monday morning we could be filming Chapter 2, Chapter 3 in the afternoon and Tuesday morning back to Chapter 1

It was challenging for everyone. It was challenging for the actors to go to those emotional spaces, especially for Madelaine, whose character changes enormously in the span of the three films. Her transformation from a sunny student in the first film to where she lands in the third film is an incredible arc.

It was really challenging for the costume department, because a scene we shot in the afternoon would have the actors in clean, neat clothes but the scene in the morning would have them in bloody, torn ones. Every department had to keep track of where we were [in terms of the story]. 

We actually had a “cry map” [timeline] because it can get really confusing when you’re shooting things out of order. The drama, the emotion and the tension are constantly evolving so the map was really important for us to keep track of where the characters were, emotionally. 

We didn’t want to make a traditional sequel where you revisit the narrative in two-three years when everything is different and you tell another random story. The three films take place within five days and it really digs deep into what drives the killers, their motive and who they are and what happens, emotionally and physically, to a victim of such senseless violence. 

I got very strong I Spit On Your Grave and Straw Dogs vibes from the film, was that intentional? 

Yes. Straw Dogs, especially the original, is a great film and one of my favourites. Deliverance is another example of a film about the divide between city and country. They’re films that have influenced me. 

It was important to me that you can relate to the characters. Here, you’ve got a couple driving across America and it could be anyone, anywhere. You’re going somewhere, you take a detour and stop for some food or gas in a small village which you can find in America, Finland, anywhere. It seems normal but on closer look, there’s something off about the people and you start wondering if they’re staring at you for a little too long. You’re a bit like a fish out of water. 

It was also important that we didn’t take it too far and make the place seem like an asylum of sorts. It needs to feel realistic, even if you feel like an outsider there. 

All three films were announced at the same time. How do you create tension when your audience already might have an idea of what will happen at the end, with sequels announced? 

That’s a good point. I’m sure the audience knows that she will survive [Chapter 1] but we put her through such a wringer so that the question becomes, how does she survive and what happens to her. 

After you see what she goes through in the next two films, it’s pretty unimaginable what Maya experiences, both mentally and physically. I guarantee that the audience doesn’t have a clue what happens to her in the next two instalments. 

the strangers chapter 1 maya
Credit: Lionsgate

Horror is a difficult genre to master. In the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of “elevated horror”. Your film is an old-school, cabin in the woods style slasher. What’s your take on these modern, elevated horror films?

There’s so many sub-genres in horror. There’s strange little kids, toys, dolls and films like M3GAN… There’s so many new avenues that filmmakers are turning to. A regular consumer doesn’t even necessarily realise just how many horror films are being developed and how few actually make it through to the big screen. 

Elevated horror is a bit of a double-edged sword. I don’t always understand it. I respect it when filmmakers want to make art or a horror film that’s also an art film. Some of these films are so on the edge… If you nudged them a little bit, they’d become a SNL sketch of a horror film, like the way they’re shot and how people behave. 

They’re making weird stuff for the sake of weirdness, making a film about a sheep or whatever. I’m not much a fan of the ones that are a bit too weird. People take them very seriously, like “This is art.” No, it’s just a bad film. 

That being said, we need to try new things and it’s great that we’re getting new blood in every genre, we can’t keep repeating the same things over and over again. [The Strangers: Chapter 1] is, like you said, a return to 80s-style, basic horror. There’s nothing supernatural about it, this is real life and sometimes really scary, horrible things happen in life that could happen to anyone.

The original is so beloved by a lot of people. What kind of a reception are you expecting for your film? 

It’s excitement mixed with fear. When it’s such a beloved film with a classic status, whatever you do, you won’t satisfy the hardcore fans. I’m expecting criticism, but a lot of the audience will also be people who haven’t seen the original film. 

I’m still hoping that I can give to the original fans what I would expect from a film like this. I have expectations as a fan myself and I’m hoping that the fans get something out of this and they won’t be disappointed. They’re the first thing on my mind, but I also want to give new audiences something fresh and I want to make sure the film works for them too, that’s really important. 

I’ve put my heart and soul into this, I’m really serious about it. Everything has been planned, the colour schemes, every costume, every angle, the lighting, how it’s edited, the music, sound effects… We’ve strived for realism but because this is a film, it’s heightened, stylised realism. I didn’t want to copy the original’s camera style which is a bit like a shaky cam, I wanted to give this film its own cinematic style. Everything is planned according to our highest artistic goals and dreams. If it comes across to the audience, that’s amazing and I hope people will find this and like it. 

The Strangers: Chapter 1 is in cinemas 17th May.

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