Review Date: October 13, 2011
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: October 4, 2005
Widescreen 1.85 | 16x9: Yes
When you think of big horror movies from the seventies or eighties, chances are almost all of them were directed by horror names you know. Directors like Argento, Carpenter, Craven, or Hooper. A genre so heavily based around style and technique, it really is a directorís genre more than any other. The major exception to an auteur cinema in the age of Raimi, Aja et al. is Sean S. Cunningham. He made huge waves as the director of the first Friday the 13th
, and his name is certainly still synonymous with the franchise today. Some may also remember him as the producer for Cravenís breakout, The Last House on the Left
. But as a director? Does anyone really remember The New Kids
or Deep Star Six
? Admittedly, he did do to the teen sex genre what Friday did to the slasher with the loveable Fort Lauderdale romp, Spring Break
, but things never really did materialize for Cunningham as a master of horror. He was certainly a hot commodity after the surprise success of Friday the 13th
and its sequels, and his much anticipated follow-up, A Stranger is Watching
, was actually a hot property back in 1981, being based on a novel by best-selling suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark. MGM entrusted a big license on Cunningham, and well, yeah, havenít heard of it? That about speaks to its success. Still, Warner did the good deed by releasing this anyway, so all aboard the Sean S. subway.
The film begins innocently enough with a little girl tossing and turning in bed. Julie (Shawn von Schreiber
, in her only film role) gets up for a glass of water, but instead sees her mom being viciously raped in front of the fireplace. Too scared to react, she watches in horror as her mother struggles and then finally gets hammered to death while screaming her daughterís name. The killer sees Julie, but by some strange stroke of luck, she survives the attack. Itís two years later, and Julie is still having nightmares, but the good news is that the man she identified as the killer is finally going to get the electric chair for all the pain he caused her and her father, newspaper writer Steve Peterson (James Naughton
). Justice will finally be served.
The whole case is major media fodder. The local TV station even elects to run a major human rights piece on the topic, which doesnít please Steve who just wants this whole thing to end. What makes matters worse is the reporter on the story is currently in a relationship with Steve. Sharon Martin (Kate Mulgrew
) has been slowly trying to win over Steveís daughterís fancy, but Julie is still apprehensive about having someone replace her mother. A massive twist of fate, however, will bring the two together and closer than ever before, as they must fight for their life.
Hours before the convicted killer Ronald Thompson (James Russo
in an early role) is to die, Julie and Sharon are kidnapped by a man in black leather. He asks for a curious ransom Ė one hundred and eighty-two million, the exact entitlement that Julie received from her motherís will. Is the guy behind this trying to free Ronald or at least buy some time? The police seem to think so, but Julie sees a lot more than that. The two ladies are held captive underneath the New York subway, and while the stranger isnít really watching them, a ticking time bomb attached to the exit door certainly is! The girls must work together to escape and find their way out of the big city catacombs if they want to live longer than even the killer that Julie sent to the chair.
Friday the 13th
wasnít high art, but you know, it worked. Itís tough to really explain its appeal outside of Saviniís effects work, but thereís something totally endearing about it. Was it Cunninghamís rollercoaster-like pacing? Barry Abramsí naturalistic lighting and handheld voyeurism? Or was it Victor Millerís provocative script about a little boy forced to endure a terrible fate? It seems MGM couldnít really put their finger on it either, and thus brought in Cunningham, Abrams and Miller once more to see if lighting struck twice. It didnít, and it still doesnít really today. A Stranger is Watching
is a modestly enjoyable thriller, but itís tepid TV fare at best, not the stuff that should be coming from filmmakers responsible for such a horror landmark.
When youíve got a child in the lead, you know the gore is going to be light, but for an R-rated horror film, this one is pretty tame. There also just isnít a lot of ingenuity. I have no idea how clever the popular best-seller was, but this movie doesnít even give us the basics when it comes to thriller constructs. The captives try a couple ways of escaping, but both are painfully obvious and end up amounting to nothing. The killer is probably the laziest and worst hostage keeper, so absent minded that even after the girls try to escape twice, he leaves the door wide open when he enters to go wash his face. Not only is the killer dumb, but everyone else essentially is too, and this is one of the only movies I know of where the police investigation (and itís a lengthy one that chews up a lot of screen time) has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the plot. You could cut every minute out and the killer would still act in the same manner and would still reach the exact same fate. Itís lazy across the board, right down to the freeze frame finale that doesnít even bother to give us a final scene resolve. Instead we get an insulting title card that ties up a loose end that Cunningham and co. couldnít even be bothered to shoot.
Itís not all a wash, though. Victor Miller is again able to effectively put a child in a dark place, and little Shawn von Schreiber actually makes for a fairly courageous little heroine. Abramsí grainy, grungy cinematography effectively captures the dark side of the Big Apple (much like Maniac
did the year before), making even a public place like a train station a dark, unsettling underbelly. Cunningham got an upgrade from Harry Manfredini in the music department, with Lalo Schifrin (Rosemaryís Baby
, Dirty Harry
) behind the stick, and Schifrinís track effectively synthesizes some steam and train samples to make for a pretty brooding soundscape when he isnít just going crazy on the Manfredini (who himself was doing his best Bernard Herrmann) orchestral cues. Rip Torn makes for an interesting killer, since heís essentially this nonchalant, blue collar New Yawk schlub with little to no redeeming values. Hell, he doesnít even have a motive for any of this. Heís just a creep, and the way the film doesnít try to hide his identity or add a layer of tragedy to his backstory adds a refreshing realism to this little yarn.
Still, at the end of the day, Cunninghamís technique is lazy and so too is the film as a whole. Cunningham has always been a good producer because he knows what the audience wants and knows what elements make a successful film. Thatís likely why his two successful directorial ventures, Friday the 13th
and Spring Break
, worked so well, because both come from genres that on paper can function in a check list kind of format. Sex, beer, drugs, partying and a crazy guy who always carries a plant? Thereís your sex comedy. Sex, beer, drugs, multiple deaths and a crazy guy who always tells everyone they are doomed? Thereís your slasher. That formula doesnít really work for the thriller that Cunningham tried to make here, and it hasnít really worked for any of this other non-slashers or sex comedies either. He knows the elements, but for a film like this there needs to be someone with a style and a storytelling sense. Cunningham doesnít have that, and as a result there really isnít much from Stranger worth watching.
The video is also literally not worth watching, either. The disc itself is already 6 years old, but it looks like a relic from the Laserdisc days, with low resolution blur during a number of sequences and a lack of detail throughout. Black levels are weak and exhibit noisy blue artifacting, grain is high (although that is to a degree due to all the low light filming in the New York subways) and the colors seem drab and skewed too heavily to brown when it comes to skin tones. The transfer is relatively clean without any scratches or gate jitter, although there small bits of white speckling throughout. Considering this is from the Warner vault, it should and could look a lot better, but I suppose it is marvel enough that itís even released on a disc format to begin with.
Itís a no frills mono track for this one, but Stranger sounds decent. The track is very clean and clear of any hiss or playback noise. Dialogue is punchy and the music is adequately mixed. Thatís about it.
This one comes from the bygone era when trailers would always be included with the films on disc. Itís fun in the classical, deep-voiced-narrator-spouting-warnings style.
A Stranger is Watching
is a lazy movie, one where the studio and the principal parties involved just thought that their involvement alone would equal a quality thriller. The director, writer and cinematographer of Friday the 13th
are reunited for this adaptation of a popular best seller, but in the end itís the audience thatís cursed. Not even decent performances and an experimental Lalo Schifrin soundtrack can save this from movie of the week (do they even make those anymore?) banality. Warner seemed to care as much about this transfer as the parties involved in making the film, with a barely competent visual transfer, no frills audio and a trailer as the sole extra. Still, for those interested in following the middling career of the guy who somehow captured lightning in a bottle twice with Friday the 13th
and Spring Break
, this still does stand up as a mild curiosity. A shitty mild curiosity.
Movie - C-
Image Quality - C-
Sound - B-
Supplements - C-
- Running time - 1 hour and 32 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- French mono
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles