Appellate Judge Dan Mancini found that, while the Stranger did more than his fair share of kidnapping and killing, he didn't do nearly enough watching for it to monopolize the title like that.
Beneath New York's Grand Central Station a killer can hide, victims can disappear…and a million witnesses will never know it happened.
The sixth of Sean S. Cunningham's films, A Stranger Is Watching has the distinction of being wedged between the director's bogeyman classic Friday the 13th and his tepid '80s sex farce, Spring Break. Largely forgotten, it's actually better than either of its neighbors in Cunningham's canon—maybe even be the best effort of the director's career—though it's a long, long way from being a lost classic.
Based on the Mary Higgins Clark page-turner of the same name, A Stranger Is Watching opens with eleven-year-old Julie Peterson's nightmare of witnessing her mother raped and murdered by one Ronald Thompson (James Russo, My Own Private Idaho). Two years later, Thompson is at the center of a media circus as he awaits his execution in just 72 hours. Julie's father, Steven (James Naughton, The First Wives Club)—the editor of News Today magazine—has found new love in the form of reporter Sharon Martin (Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager). In a painful conflict of interest, Martin is covering Thompson's execution. Steven is none too happy with what he perceives as his girlfriend's overly-sympathetic view of his wife's murderer, as well as her sensationalizing the trauma suffered by Julie and himself.
Meanwhile, a mystery man (Rip Torn, Men in Black) is surveilling Julie's schoolyard in the upstate bedroom community of Carly where the Petersons live. He kidnaps Julie and Sharon and ferrets them away to the depths of the subway tunnels below Grand Central Station. When Julie remembers that the kidnapper is actually the killer, their escape becomes a race against time. Can Sharon and Julie get away in time to save Thompson's life?
For the first 25 minutes or so, A Stranger Is Watching is fairly standard Sean S. Cunningham pap. Friday the 13th-style ploys abound: bait-n-switch scares, overblown music, and horrendous expository dialogue that's supposed to be folksy and naturalistic. Once Sharon and Julie are kidnapped, though, it becomes Rip Torn and Kate Mulgrew's show, a far cry from the rote slasher pictures that are Cunningham's cinematic legacy. In one of the picture's better tangential happenings, Torn gets his butt kicked in a subway bathroom by a bunch of adolescent thugs: This killer is no Jason-style, invincible bogeyman. Mulgrew's Sharon Martin is believably vulnerable but also smart and resourceful. The interplay between the two actors is the highlight of the picture, and there's plenty of it throughout the second act.
Not surprisingly, Cunningham is adept at building suspenseful set pieces. Torn and Mulgrew's performances imbue the characters with just enough dimension and believability to up the ante on the director's horror show shenanigans. The second half of the picture has a number of nail-biting sequences, made all the more potent because we actually care whether Torn's leather-jacketed creep offs Sharon Martin.
Unfortunately, these thrilling punctuations don't make up for Cunningham's undercooked anti-death penalty and troubled little girl themes. We suffer through the director's ham-fisted exposition in the movie's first act, only to have the themes he appears to be carefully setting up amount to very little. In her one and only screen credit (according to IMDb), Shawn von Schreiber delivers a solid, understated performance as Julie, but there's too little to the role as scripted—Julie comes off as a normal eleven-year-old kid, not a child who has witnessed the rape and murder of her mother. The girl is so poorly developed, she does little more than get in the way of the more vibrant dynamic between Sharon and the killer. Similarly problematic is the fact that Cunningham goes to great pains establishing that Ronald Thompson has only 72 hours to live, yet he doesn't build an iota of tension regarding whether or not our heroines will be rescued in time to save his life.
Warner's DVD release of A Stranger Is Watching is barebones but decent. The transfer sports an image that is natural throughout, though it varies quite a bit in quality. Some scenes are heavy in grain, while some are smooth and detailed. The good news is there aren't many negative effects from digital manipulation, and the print from which the transfer was sourced was clean and free of damage. Colors are accurate. The original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is maintained, and the transfer is enhanced for widescreen displays.
The disc offers both English and French audio tracks, both mono. The single-channel tracks are clean, but mixed so low that some dialogue is difficult to make out unless the sound is cranked. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The only supplement is a theatrical trailer for the film.
A Stranger Is Watching may be Sean S. Cunningham's best feature, but it's still not a good movie. Though the story was serviceable and the cast impressive, making the film's individual parts congeal into a satisfying whole seems to have been beyond the grasp of its maker.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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