How “The Strangers” Director's 'Horrifying' Real-Life Home Invasion Experience Impacted the Film (Exclusive)

'The Strangers' director Renny Harlin reveals how feelings of "helplessness" and a "violation of sanctuary" played into the horror film

<p>Mark Von Holden/Variety via Getty; John Armour/Lionsgate</p> Renny Harlin on May 8, 2024; A scene from

Mark Von Holden/Variety via Getty; John Armour/Lionsgate

Renny Harlin on May 8, 2024; A scene from 'The Strangers: Chapter 1' (2024)

The Strangers hit close to home for director Renny Harlin, who recalls being the victim of an intruder.

Opening moments of The Strangers - Chapter 1, a new take on the 2007 thriller that starred Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, present a statistic: "According to the FBI, there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. That’s one committed every 26.3 seconds. Seven since you’ve been watching this film."

The ominous title card then reads, "This is the story of one of the most brutal."

While the film, written by Alan R. Cohen and Alan Freedland, and its forthcoming sequels are not based on a true story, director Harlin, 65, tells PEOPLE his own scary home invasion experience "informed" his approach to the subject matter.

Harlin, known for directing action movies like Die Hard 2 (1990) and Deep Blue Sea (1999), says one night back in 2000 he woke up to the sound of a stranger "rattling the handle of my bedroom door" at his home in Beverly Hills.

"It was horrifying," he recalls, adding that he was locked inside his bedroom with his big Rhodesian Ridgeback dog named Little at his side. "Before I could even really react, I just sort of sat up and thought, 'What the hell is going on?' "

Related: Why Actress Kate Siegel Brings Her Kids on Horror Movie Sets: 'It Creates Bravery. They Love It' (Exclusive)

<p>Mark Von Holden/Variety via Getty; SGranitz/WireImage)</p> Renny Harlin at 'The Strangers - Chapter 1' premiere on May 8, 2024; Harlin back in 2003

Mark Von Holden/Variety via Getty; SGranitz/WireImage)

Renny Harlin at 'The Strangers - Chapter 1' premiere on May 8, 2024; Harlin back in 2003

Next, "Little dove so hard toward the door that she slipped and her whole, like, 150 pounds slammed into the door. She started growling and barking like a maniac," says Harlin. "Then I just heard somebody turn around outside my bedroom door and start running away."

What the filmmaker did next was admittedly "stupid," he says in hindsight: He opened the door and chased after the intruder.

"Somebody's been able to open my gates, and next to my car is a pickup truck," he recalls, adding that he saw "two guys running out the doors, and they dive into the back of the pickup truck and it takes off like in the movies — literally with the tire smoking."

According to Harlin, his front door was open and all the lights in his house were turned on, downstairs and up. Feeling "furious, violated and so angry," he decided to get in his car to follow the intruders down Mulholland Drive at roughly 3 a.m. All while "only wearing my boxer shorts," he points out.

<p>John Armour/Lionsgate</p> Madelaine Petsch in "The Strangers - Chapter 1" (2024)

John Armour/Lionsgate

Madelaine Petsch in "The Strangers - Chapter 1" (2024)

The police on the phone told him to stop and turn around, and eventually Harlin lost the pickup truck, he says. Back at his house, police cleared the premises and interviewed Harlin about what he witnessed. The officers informed him that he made the situation more dangerous when he unlocked his bedroom door.

"They said," he recalled, "in this kind of a home invasion situation, if you have a place that you can lock, like your bedroom, if you can lock the door, you stay there and call the police. You pray that they don't kick the door in." What he did "exposed" him to the threat and was "like a death sentence," police told him.

"The only thing that saved me," the officers told him at the time, "was my dog." Harlin says, "They said, 'Thank your dog because very likely your dog just saved your life."

Harlin says nothing from his home was stollen, the case was never solved, the men were never caught — and "I never went back to that house." Over two decades later, his experience affected his making of The Strangers.

In the film, a young couple (Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez) are on a road trip when their car breaks down in a tiny remote town. They are forced to stay the night at an Airbnb, where they become tormented by brutal masked intruders.

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While the movie's events are "much more visceral and violent" than what happened to him, Harlin says that "feeling of helplessness and a violation of the sanctuary" resurfaced while crafting The Strangers.

"My experience made me realize we are completely at the mercy of just that one bad stroke of luck," he says, adding, "There were moments at night when we were doing these [scenes] where I did step aside and I had tears in my eyes, but I think people thought I was just really tired or something. But I was reliving that situation."

"It was potentially life-threatening, but I got away with very little damage. It's definitely something I realized has followed me ever since. Wherever I live, always if I'm in a house, I make extremely sure that there's really good lighting outside so that there's no chance somebody could sort of lurk in the darkness and look into the house."

The Strangers - Chapter 1 is in theaters now.

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