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