Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Stranger Is Watching

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

Rated R
Running Time 1:32
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
Stars Kate Mulgrew, Rip Torn, James Naughton, Shawn von Schreiber
First published October 21, 2005

Sean Cunningham never wanted to be a horror film director. It was just his bad luck that he was very successful at it.

Cunningham fell into filmmaking in his twenties, along with a very good friend named Wes Craven, with whom he made the notorious LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, an unrelentingly brutal reimagining of Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING as a horror film. Craven directed it and Cunningham produced it, and even though it met with some financial success, it wasn’t what Cunningham really wanted to do as an artist.

However, when a pair of children’s movies he directed failed to ignite with audiences or studios, Cunningham took a cue from HALLOWEEN, then the most successful independent feature ever made, and decided to direct his own horror movie using what he believed was an identical formula. The result was 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH, the crudely effective “slasher” movie that became one of the most influential horror films of all time. Cunningham was in demand to direct more movies in the same vein, but to his credit, he elected to move on to something more mature.

A STRANGER IS WATCHING was an answer to MGM’s belief that a white-collar audience existed for horror films without the gore that characterized FRIDAY THE 13TH. The psychological thriller was not a box-office success in 1982, convincing Cunningham that fans weren’t interested in seeing bloodless horror movies. He may have been right at the time, but A STRANGER IS WATCHING is, despite its apparent financial failure, a suspenseful, well-photographed thriller that holds up quite well.

Two years earlier, a man broke into little Julie Peterson’s (Shawn von Schreiber) home and raped and murdered her mother right before her eyes. A teenager named Ronald Thompson (James Russo, later to get good roles in BEVERLY HILLS COP, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and DONNIE BRASCO), whom Julie identified in court as the assailant, now stands on Death Row for committing the crime. The story receives tremendous media attention, particularly from the news magazine edited by Steve Peterson (James Naughton), Julie’s father, and his new girlfriend, television reporter Sharon Martin (top-billed Kate Mulgrew).

Three days before Thompson is scheduled to be executed, a misogynistic psychopath (Rip Torn) kidnaps Sharon and the now-11-year-old Julie from the Peterson house and hides them in a long-forgotten room located deep in the steamy, dank bowels of Grand Central Station. He demands a ransom for their safe return, but his appearance so close to the execution seems like an unlikely coincidence. What’s his connection to Julie’s mother’s murder, and what does he really want from Steve?

Cunningham and cinematographer Barry Abrams attack the audience in much the same manner that distinguished FRIDAY THE 13TH, using the camera as a stalker, flitting down dark, crowded, filthy train tunnels, up fragile iron ladders and staircases, allowing the steam and despair of the mysterious existence below Grand Central Station to become as much of an antagonist as Torn’s character. The gloomy underground locations and sets provide an overwhelming feeling of dread that plays right into Cunningham’s strategy of keeping us on edge. And while he may have dialed back the gore content, Cunningham still delivers the sadistic goods. Victims are stabbed with knives and screwdrivers, bashed in the head, pushed down sweaty staircases—all shown in loving detail, while the goosebump-inducing orchestral score by Lalo Schifrin pushes the suspense to barely bearable levels.

Based on a best-selling novel by Mary Higgins Clark, the screenplay by Earl MacRauch (THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION) and Victor Miller (FRIDAY THE 13TH) doesn’t completely hold together. For one thing, the innocent-man-waiting-to-be-executed-for-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit subplot turns out to be basically superfluous and isn’t given the weight hinted at in the first half. Torn’s motive for the snatch and his relationship with a co-conspirator remain unclear.

The performances, for the most part, mesh with Cunningham’s taut direction to make you care about Torn’s victims and not care so much about the inconsistencies in story. 27-year-old Mulgrew, not yet the captain of the U.S.S. Voyager, but a veteran stage performer just coming off the NBC mystery series MRS. COLUMBO, is a more mature Final Girl than usual and very believable in her scenes with young von Schreiber, a likable child actress who appears to have made no other films. Torn could, of course, play heavies in his sleep, but doesn’t walk through this one, essaying a tone more sinister and realistic than the broad villain he portrayed the same year in THE BEASTMASTER.

Sean Cunningham went on to direct other movies, but found greater success in the horror genre as a producer. He learned he couldn’t escape the movie he was most closely identified with and bought back the rights to FRIDAY THE 13TH, which he then combined with the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET concept created by his pal Wes Craven to produce 2003’s FREDDY VS. JASON, the biggest hit of his three-decade career.

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