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Interview with Victor Miller (A Stranger is Watching)

‘Overhead the station was bustling with the comings and goings of thousands of travellers,’ detailed Mary Higgins Clark in her acclaimed novel A Stranger is Watching, as her deranged antagonist made his way down to his secret domain under New York City’s Grand Central Station where, underneath one of the busiest train stations in the world, he kept two young woman hostage.

‘When he’d pondered where he could keep Peterson’s son until the ransom was paid, he’d remembered this room,’ she continued. ‘He’d investigated it and then realised how well it fit into his plan.’ While nineteen-year-old Ronald Thompson sits on death row for the murder of Nina Peterson, the victim’s young son is kidnapped and held for ransom by a psychopath named Artie Taggart, the real perpetrator of the crime. Locked underneath the long-forgotten Oyster Bar, six-year-old Neil Peterson and his father’s friend, ambitious reporter Sharon Martin, fight for their lives as the clock slowly ticks towards their own executions.

Fresh from his success with the controversial blockbuster Friday the 13th, filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham was recruited by MGM /United Artists to adapt Higgins Clark’s third novel, A Stranger is Watching. Published in 1977 by Simon & Schuster, the book featured many of the key elements for a thriller; a deranged psychopath, a man wrongly accused of a crime and a headstrong young woman fighting for survival.

The task of adapting the novel fell to two writers; Earl Mac Rauch and Victor Miller. Having worked with Cunningham on not only Friday the 13th but also his two preceding sports comedies, Here Come the Tigers and Manny’s Orphans, Miller seemed the obvious choice to write the script for his major studio debut. Both had passed on the opportunity to develop Friday the 13th Part 2, long before the villainous Jason Voorhees became a pop culture icon, and instead took what they had learned from the low budget horror into the more respectable realm of psychological thrillers.

A Stranger is Watching was released in January 1982, while American moviegoers flocked to the cinemas to watch the latest slasher film, a trend perpetuated by the overnight success of Friday the 13th. Billed as ‘the most bizarre suspense thriller of the year,’ Cunningham’s picture received modest acclaim from critics, allowing Miller to branch out into television on such popular shows as All My Children and Guiding Light, while Cunningham’s failed attempts at breaking away from horror would result in the cult genre flicks House and DeepStar Six.

Victor Miller looks back on his experience writing A Stranger is Watching.

Having written two sports comedies aimed at families, were you concerned that after writing two thrillers you could have been typecast as a horror writer or was that a label you’d wear with pride?

I have never worried about being typecast as anything but a professional writer. It is true that my real delight is in a sense of humour which is closer to the Zucker Brothers than Crystal Lake.

With Friday the 13th having been produced independently, did you enjoy writing for a major studio?

I do not much care who I work with provided they want to produce films and not just sign contracts.

Despite its success, Friday the 13th encountered a significant amount of controversy. Did your involvement have negative side effects on how studios viewed you in Hollywood?

I have no idea what is in other people’s heads. I just do whatever I can and leave the illusions to others.

A Stranger is Watching

A Stranger is Watching

Sean S. Cunningham declined the chance to work on Friday the 13th Part 2 in favour of directing A Stranger is Watching. Do you think he made the right decision?

Financially yes, but professionally no.

Two writers were credited for the screenplay. Did you collaborate together or was one brought in to rewrite the other?

I was brought in to do a page one rewrite. Most of the material in the film is mine – the structure is mostly mine. But because we were working from a novel, Mary Higgins Clark can take the real credit.

Did you Mary Higgins Clark’s novel prior to be hired to write the script or work from a treatment, and could you envision how it would translate to the screen?

I read the novel first and then tried to make it screen-worthy. Her fiction is exciting and narrative, but it is not cinematic which is what was required.

How faithful an adaptation of the book did the producers wish your script to be and how influenced by the current horror trends were they?

The screenplay is faithful to the novel and was not really a horror film. One of the problems with the publicity was that they tried to sell it as the work of the men who brought you Friday the 13th. It was not a horror movie in that sense. It was a naturalistic thriller. Thus our Friday fans felt gypped in my not so humble opinion.

As a writer of thrillers, which authors or filmmakers inspired you during the development of the screenplay?

God knows. I stand on the shoulders of everyone who went before me. I went to the movies every Saturday from 1946 to 1953 and saw a double feature every time. In retrospect I would have done better if I had tried to emulate Hitchcock.

While not categorised as such, A Stranger is Watching shared similarities with some of the early slasher films, such as When a Stranger Calls. Did you draw influence from any films in particular while working on the script?

Not that I can recall. I was just wrestling with the novel form.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is the antagonist holding his hostages captive in the catacombs under Grand Central Station. How did you try to utilise this concept as much as possible?

It is all on the screen. I think Sean and company did a fabulous job of using that landscape to the max.

How many drafts of the screenplay did you work on and how long did the process take?

At least three drafts and I have no recollection of the time I spent.

Did you receive any feedback from Mary Higgins Clark on how her novel had been adapted?

Never met her, never heard from her.

The film touches upon the morality of capital punishment. Is this a subject you feel passionately about?

I really hate the whole idea of the state killing citizens, even murderers. It is just too creepy to think about. When I saw A Tale of Two Cities I was just plain grossed out by the whole concept of the guillotine.

Unlike Mrs Voorhees, A Stranger is Watching allowed you to fully develop a three-dimensional murderer. Did this make the character more interesting to write?

Not particularly. Rip Torn did his work really well but I have a special fondness for Pamela Voorhees because she was the mother I always wanted – a mom who would kill for me.

Having decapitated the villain in your previous film, the heroine of A Stranger is Watching stabs Artie Taggart through the throat. Were you pleased with the eventual fate of the killer?

In the first instance I was completely free to choose the death. In the second I was working from a story which had been created for me.

Shawn von Schreiber and Kate Mulgrew

Shawn von Schreiber and Kate Mulgrew

Over the years Rip Torn has given many eccentric and sinister performances.

Rip’s performance was chilling and bigger and better than I could possibly have imagined.

The New York Times offered a positive review of the film, with critic Janet Maslin describing your script as ‘fast and trim.’ Was the overall opinion more positive that the reaction to Friday the 13th and what are your thoughts on the movie over thirty years later?

I dine out on Friday the 13th. Almost no one remembers A Stranger is Watching. Kate Mulgrew is better known for her outer space adventures as well.

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