A Stranger Is Watching (1982)

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham [Other horror films: Case of the Full Moon Murder (1973), Friday the 13th (1980), The New Kids (1985), DeepStar Six (1989), XCU: Extreme Close Up (2001), Trapped Ashes (2006, segment ‘Jibaku’)]

Perhaps most-known (when it’s known at all) for being directed by Sean S. Cunningham (DeepStar Six and more famously Friday the 13th), A Stranger Is Watching isn’t the easiest movie to categorize. It’s primarily crime, but certainly strong slasher elements persist, and while the film doesn’t end up a great movie, there’s enough here to at least recommend a single watch.

It should be said that this film is not your traditional horror movie. I think that some people see it’s directed by Cunningham, and get the idea that it’ll be another 80’s slasher. And let’s not be coy – when I say ‘people,’ I mean myself. It’s based on a novel by Mary Higgins Clark from 1977, though, and as someone who’s read a little bit of her work, once you realize it’s based on a novel, you’ll know it’s probably more influenced by mystery/crime.

Rip Torn (Dolly Dearest and Coma) did pretty great as the rather mentally-unstable killer here. He had that grimy style (which was certainly accentuated by the fantastic setting, which I’ll touch on shortly) that you have to appreciate, and a good sense of violence. This is a somewhat early role for Kate Mulgrew (who I don’t know, but see starred in Star Trek: Voyager, for any Trekkies who happen to be reading), and I thought she did a solid job, and her opposition to the death penalty was acceptable also.

And it’s on that topic I wanted to take a few moments. Part of this film deals with a potentially innocent man being sent to death based on a single witness, and I think that points out just how atrocious the death penalty is. Aside from being barbaric for a state to sentence someone to death, the very idea that an innocent person could be killed because they’re poor (because let’s be honest – how many wealthy men and women have been put to death in the USA?) shows what a terrible policy it is. Unfortunately, it’s a terrible policy that has always had over 50% approval in recent decades, which is just ridiculous.

I don’t know what Cunningham was aiming for specifically when he threw in this plot point about the death penalty (and it’s possible it’s a point straight from the novel), and it may be that he shared some of the same reservations as I do, but regardless, it did bring in a more realistic and socially-relevant subject into the film, which I appreciated.

What I also appreciated was the fact this movie wasn’t quite typical, as I mentioned earlier. As stated, while certainly horror, quite a bit of this felt like a crime film, a beautifully gritty one, at that. Once two of the characters are abducted, there’s a few sequences of them trying to escape, and while occasionally horror elements find their way into these scenes, it mostly feels more suspenseful with, of course, a dash of crime.

A Stranger Is Watching wasn’t a bad watch. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it wasn’t bad. At the same time, I can understand why I don’t really hear too much about this one, and if it had been more of a straight horror film as opposed to a crime film with strong horror elements, that may not have been the case. Still, it’s not bad if you want something a little different, or want to see what Cunningham was up to following the massively popular Friday the 13th.

7.5/10

This is one of the films covered by Fight Evil’s podcast. Listen below as Chucky (@ChuckyFE) and I discuss A Stranger Is Watching.

Author: Jiggy's Horror Corner

Fan of the horror genre, writer of mini-reviews, and lover of slashers.

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