A Stranger Is Watching

Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Kate Mulgrew, Rip Torn, James Naughton

I really like unknown movies a lot, so much so that I started this web site for the purpose of hopefully bringing enough attention to them that readers will seek out the ones I recommend and watch them for themselves. It is quite a challenge for me at times to find these movies, however. In fact, I would say that every year that passes, it gets harder to find movies that are both unknown and give me enough spark upon finding them to make me want to watch and subsequently review them. Also what gets harder with every passing year is finding unknown movies with enough variety to them to keep things fresh on this web site. As I think I've told you readers before, I try not to put up a new review of a movie that consists of the same genre covered in the review I put up just prior to the new review. And I try to give all the main genres in my genre index equal time, but it's tough; I have found it very hard for the past few years to find unknown sci-fi and fantasy films. But I don't just look at the genre of the movie when it comes to giving this web site enough variety. I also look at other things about the movie. One feature about movies I look at when it comes to considering reviewing them on this web site is the studio that made the particular movie. I know that many movie buffs have interest in the various outputs of certain studios, so I try to have something for every movie buff. I've made sure to cover various movies from PM Entertainment, Cannon Films, the two A.I.P.s (American International Pictures and Action International Pictures), Millennium Pictures, and a host of other B movie studios.

I will admit that when it comes to the "A" studios, like Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and the others, I haven't reviewed many of their films compared to all those B studios. The reason is pretty obvious - the majority of their movies are not unknown. I do try on occasion to review a movie from a major Hollywood studio, but it's not easy. In fact, it's pretty amazing when I not only manage to do so, but when the major studio happens to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Yes, I have reviewed a few MGM movies over the years, like The Five Man Army, No Blade Of Grass, Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears, The Magic Garden Of Stanley Sweetheart, and Mr. Ricco. But when you know more about the history of MGM, you'll see that it's pretty amazing that I have found even that number of movies from them to review. The studio was founded in 1924, and for the next several decades became the king of all Hollywood studios, making high class and well-known movies. In short, not the kind of movies that really fit on this web site. Things started to crumble in the 1950s with the introduction of television, and the studio eventually started to lose money. But the studio continued to make movies that wouldn't fit on this web site. In the 1960s the studio eventually got in a pattern of making just one big budget prestige movie a year and the rest being medium to low budget fare (a lot being aimed at the drive-in crowd.) It's here that those above MGM I reviewed in the past got made. But eventually by the mid-1970s, the studio's output dwindled to almost nothing. Not only that, MGM wasn't even releasing its own movies itself; it gave that job to other major Hollywood studios.

In the 1980s, MGM did get a shot in the arm with, among other things, its purchase of United Artists. MGM then significantly increased the number of movies they made, but few of their movies became sizable hits. It must also have hurt that their United Artists division had more hits A Stranger Is Watchingthan they did. MGM has been limping along ever since, with their status today being a studio that devotes its time to coproductions with other studios. Anyway, this modern thirty plus year period is one that I wanted for some time to cover more than just with Shoot The Moon and the direct to video Species: The Awakening. But most of these particular MGM movies, box office flops as they were, are pretty well known by much of the public. But recently I came across the MGM movie A Stranger Is Watching, and it seemed to fit the bill. It was a box office flop that is pretty unknown all these years later despite being an R-rated thriller. I had to give it a look. The events of the movie take place in the New York City area. A convicted rapist and murderer by the name of Ronald Thompson (James Russo, The Cotton Club) is on death row and will shortly be executed by the state. A few years earlier, he was identified in a criminal trial by a child named Julie Peterson (Shawn von Schreiber) as the person who raped and murdered her mother. Julie's reporter father Steve (Naughton, The Paper Chase) still grieves, but is now in a romantic relationship with fellow reporter Sharon Martin (Mulgrew, Orange Is The New Black). However, a few days before Ronald is set to be executed, Steve has a new problem on his hand - both Julie and Sharon are kidnapped by a maniac named Artie (Torn, Beer), who holds them in his secret lair under Grand Central Station. He demands a ransom, but the question comes up if he secretly has some sort of connection to the tragedy that happened to Steve's wife. Does he? And could Ronald be innocent despite Julie's claims?

Some readers of this review might recognize the name of the director of A Stranger Is Watching, Sean S. Cunningham. Two years before directing this movie, Cunningham directed Friday The 13th, a smash hit that had the unfortunate consequence of pigeonholing Cunningham as a violent horror filmmaker. Cunningham took on this project as an attempt to show critics and audiences he could do something different, a serious minded thriller. However, Cunningham wasn't very successful with this opportunity. He does get the movie off to a decent start, with the portrayal of Julie's mother's rape and murder - the sequence does come across as somewhat uneasy to watch, and is executed with some skill (what is shown to be happening is slowly revealed to the audience.) However, after this promising beginning, Cunningham's direction soon falls apart. He gets some basic things wrong, like establishing the setting; we don't know where exactly the events are taking place for the longest time. And even once we learn where the movie is taking place, Cunningham avoids adding local color; even upper Grand Central Station comes across as a generic train station. Actually, such complaints as those are minor compared to the biggest mistake Cunningham ultimately makes - the movie is almost devoid of any sense of thrills or horror. For starters, while you might think that the "R" rating awarded for this movie promises some strong stuff, the movie doesn't have much in the way of blood. In fact, the rating given for this movie seems to have come more for the instances of foul language instead of that red stuff.

But as I said earlier, Cunningham was trying with this movie to make a serious minded thriller, which was a noble goal. But as I also said earlier, Cunningham doesn't manage to generate much in the way of thrills. Scene after scene that should pack a punch doesn't. When Artie kidnaps Julie and Sharon, there is a matter-of-fact feeling instead of a sense that these two innocent females are in danger. And as the movie progresses, there is no sense of building terror or that the clock is ticking dangerously towards a potentially deadly ending (the guy on death row who is to be executed in a few hours is pretty much forgotten about until the very end.) Even a few old tricks Cunningham desperately uses to try and bring terror, from a cat jumping into the frame to using the crutch of the supposedly creepy musical score by Lalo Schifrin, don't work. But I think that there is another reason to blame Cunningham as to why there isn't any particular bite in A Stranger Is Watching, and that is with what he does with the cast. Every main player in the cast comes off as wrong in one aspect or another. The child actress playing Julie is much too mature-looking (and acting) to be a believable eleven year-old. Her father, played by James Naughton, shows almost no concern when his daughter and his girlfriend Sharon are kidnapped. For that matter, actress Kate Mulgrew makes the character of Sharon also take the kidnapping situation much better than you might think. As for the character of Artie played by Rip Torn, it was hard for this viewer to take him seriously a lot of the time, because with his cap and leather coat he resembled eccentric actor Michael J. Pollard in the B movie The Art Of Dying. Most other viewers will not have seen that other movie, but they will find all the same the character of Artie pretty unbelievable. He acts more like a grumpy old man who is more bark than bite instead of a sick individual that you could believe could snap at any minute and inflict injury (or worse) on an innocent person.

Although director Cunningham certainly has a lot to do with the failure of A Stranger Is Watching, from its lack of bite to allowing the cast to give lazy performances, the script by screenwriters Earl Mac Rauch and Victor Miller is equally to blame. Though based on a book by acclaimed writer Mary Higgins Clark, the script is so thoroughly dumb that I'm sure Clark was very unhappy with the finished film. The script starts off okay, managing to explain and set up everything in the first ten or so minutes, but then starts to fall apart. There are a number of things that are not explained, like why Julie's mother was originally targeted by her killer, how Artie knew he'd be kidnapping two people, and why Artie did not notice the dumbwaiter in his underground lair. Even worse than those unanswered questions are some howlingly unbelievable moments, like the in the spotlight Julie being left alone at night, the kidnapped Julie being carried in a bag by Artie through Grand Central Station without struggling, and an audio cassette sent by Artie to Julie's father not being dusted for fingerprints by the police before being handled. But the script isn't just filled with unexplained and laughable moments as those, but also with a whole bunch of padding, such as two lengthy (and ultimately futile) escape attempts Julie and Sharon make, and one scene where Artie get mugged in a washroom. Such padding as those examples don't hide the fact that there is not much real story going on here; there's maybe only enough real plot for a half hour television drama. And the little plot that there is is quite frankly nothing we haven't seen before. Apart from those aforementioned occasional unintended chuckles, I was really bored by A Stranger Is Watching, mainly because everybody involved with the production seems to have been just as bored as I was.

(Posted January 5, 2020)

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See also: Crawlspace, Curfew, If I Die Before I Wake