Sunday, October 9, 2011

October 5th: He Knows You're Alone (1980)

Called in to investigate the murder of bride-to-be Marie (Robin Tilghman), Detective Len Gamble (Lewis Arlt) immediately suspects Ray Carlton (Tom Rolfing). Three years ago, Ray murdered his ex-girlfriend and Gamble's fiance (Dorian Lopinto) on their wedding day; since then, Gamble has been relentlessly tracking Ray, who has spent the last three years continuing his murder spree, targeting young brides throughout the week before their wedding.
As Detective Gamble resumes his manhunt, Amy Jensen (Caitlin O'Heaney) is spending the week before her wedding with best friends Nancy (Elizabeth Kemp) and Joyce (Patsy Pease) while fiancee Phil (James Carroll) is out of town for his bachelor party. Preparing for her impending nuptials, Amy begins to have second doubts, mostly brought on by her lingering feelings for ex-boyfriend Marvin (Don Scardino). As Amy struggles to decide between Phil and Marvin, Ray targets Amy and her friends, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
Following the massive success of John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978 and Sean S. Cunningham's Friday The 13th in 1980, horror filmmakers took note of this new concept of the slasher film and have been churning out imitators ever since, ranging from fantastic (The Slumber Party Massacre) to adequate (The House on Sorority Row) to god awful (Sleepaway Camp). While many of these films were as inspired by Cunningham as they were by Carpenter, horror fans and historians tend to overlook the small set of slashers made in a post-Halloween, pre-Friday The 13th world, most of which tried to emulate Carpenter's ability to craft interesting characters and unbearable tension as opposed to Cunningham's flare for gore and spectacular kill scenes.
Sitting alongside Fred Walton's When A Stranger Calls and Paul Lynch's Prom Night is He Knows You're Alone, the brainchild of TV movie director Armand Mastroianni and screenwriter Scott Parker, whose career ended with this obscure slasher. More so than Walton and Lynch's films, He Knows You're Alone wears its influence on its sleeve, imitating Halloween in its visuals, story structure, character types, and musical choices. But what makes this film interesting isn't so much how similar it is to Carpenter's classic, but in what ways it stands out from its slasher brethren.
For starters, the film immediately pulls you in with its subversive opening, a scene Wes Craven would pay homage to in Scream 2 17 years later. Like the Scream series, the opening serves to introduce the killer, only loosely connected to the rest of the film. Fortunately, Mastroianni knows a thing or two about pacing and pulls the story together quickly afterwards; within the first 15 minutes, we the audience not only know Ray Carlton's backstory and the reason he slaughters young brides, but the character of Detective Gamble is also established, as is his obsession with Carlton, a relationship pretty similar to the one between Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis.
Those who want to criticize He Knows You're Alone for its imitation of Halloween can't be faulted for that. He Knows You're Alone is far from the only slasher film to take from John Carpenter. Friday The 13th borrows the opening from the killer's POV scene, Prom Night and Terror Train cast Jamie Lee Curtis, and virtually every slasher film since 1978 have used the same story elements, character types and shock ending from Carpenter's film. (To be fair, Halloween bears some notable similarities to an earlier slasher film, Black Christmas, from 1974).
That being said, the overwhelming majority of these films took inspiration from Halloween. He Knows You're Alone outright steals from it. Mastroianni utilizes a lot of the same camera angles as Carpenter does; the POV shots for the flashback and shots of the killer from a distance, which Carpenter used to great effect, reappear here. Parker's script has several of Halloween's plot points; the heroine thinks she's being followed by someone, the killer targets women who remind him of his first victim and the hero is obsessed with the killer. Worst of all, the music by Alexander and Mark Peskanov is virtually identical to Carpenter's chilling score. I can understand why the filmmakers would take inspiration from Halloween, but their shameless copying of it is a major problem. You can't help but compare the two films and let's face it; every slasher film looks worse compared to Halloween.
Despite the obvious similarities, there is still a lot to like about He Knows You're Alone. For starters, Mastroianni and Parker put a very clever twist on the subject matter by making the heroine a bride-to-be. In most slasher films, the killer is specifically targeting the promiscuous, flirtatious men and women, punishing them for the immoral act of pre-marital sex; the virginal heroine is not the killer's primary target, she just happens to be the last one standing to face the killer. In He Knows You're Alone, the killer is not only targeting the virgin on purpose, he's punishing her for following the norms of society by getting married and holding onto her virginity until she is married. It's a clever change of pace from the rest of the genre, disputing the old stereotype that the virgin is relatively safe from the killer.
He Knows You're Alone also puts a nice twist on its Dr. Loomis character, present here in the form of Lewis Arlt's Detective Len Gamble. Without a doubt, one of the best elements of Carpenter's film was Donald Pleasance's Dr. Loomis, who gave the film gravitas and weight, by virtue of his obsession with Michael Myers; he was clearly terrified of what Michael would do in HaddonfieldLoomis, Gamble is untrustworthy and dangerous, yet Arlt's mixture of obsession and desperation gives him a degree of empathy and a personal connection to the case that makes him fascinating and unique.
Without a doubt, the film's biggest strength is its cast of main characters. Unlike the characters usually seen in slasher films, these people aren't sex-crazed teenagers looking for a good time, Joyce being the exception; they're young adults stuck in that awkward phase of moving beyond childhood and growing up, especially Amy and Marvin. For much of the movie, Amy is unsure of her relationship situation; Phil is attractive and a great catch, but finds that most of her friends don't like him and he wants her to quit school and stay at home while he works. On the flipside, Marvin is a morgue attendant and doesn't have much going for him, but he makes Amy laugh and he genuinely loves her for who she is. Even Nancy, who in any other movie would've abandoned Amy for a love-making session with new boyfriend Elliot (more on him later), cancels their date to stay with a frightened Amy. They're nothing revolutionary but, in a world full of 12 Friday The 13th's and eight Hellraiser's, it's refreshing to see something other than horny teens in a slasher film.
In addition to being well-written, in context, the film is also stocked with good talent in front of the camera. Caitlin O'Heaney, best known for her work on the short-lived TV series Tales of The Gold Monkey, is quite effective as final girl Amy Jensen. She conveys a charm and maturity that makes her instantly likeable and sympathetic. Elizabeth Kemp and Patsy Pease do well in the supporting roles of Nancy and Joyce, bringing the requisite sex appeal required for a slasher film. In the role of Marvin, Don Scardino, despite a clumsy introduction, gradually develops into a funny, genuinely good person. The rest of the cast fill their roles adequately, with notable appearances by notable '80s actors Paul Gleason (Principal Richard Vernon in The Breakfast Club), Dana Barron (Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation) and Russell Todd (Scott in Friday The 13th Part 2). Tom Rolfing, despite a few laughable facial expressions, is appropriately creepy as Ray Carlton, Mastroianni wisely putting much of the focus on Rolfing's leering eyes and letting his body language do the talking for him.
While fairly solid for the most part, He Knows You're Alone takes a bad turn in its disappointing climax. Though predictable, one of the things most enjoyable about the slasher genre is seeing the virginal heroine face off against the unstoppable killer and emerge triumphant and traumatized. Unfortunately, the film's climax lacks any real impact. Mastroianni makes little use of the morgue setting, resulting in unsatisfying chase scenes, Amy cowers in a corner instead of fighting back, Marvin is largely absent, and Gamble's plight is unresolved. To make matters worse, the audience is hit with two sour notes in the last five minutes; Ray Carlton is arrested off-screen rather than being subjected to a horrifying death scene and the ending throws in a twist ending involving Amy and Phil that makes zero sense, especially given Phil's lack of screen time.
Given that He Knows You're Alone was never given a sequel and its creators never went on to anything of importance, it has largely fallen into obscurity alongside such forgotten slashers as The Prowler, Sledgehammer and Slaughter High; the film, however, is remembered for one factoid of historical importance in the history of film; He Knows You're Alone marks the film debut of Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's most popular actors and winner of two back-to-back Oscars for his performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, not to mention roles in such films as Big, Sleepless in Seattle, Cast Away, and The Green Mile. So how does Tom do in his first film? While not the great actor he would become in the later '80s and throughout the '90s, Hanks, in the brief role of psych major Elliot, showcases his trademark charisma and energy. He makes the most out of his part, in which he romances Nancy and explains to the characters, and the audience, why people love being scared. Despite only roughly 10 minutes of screen time, and being completely absent from the first hour of the film, Hanks is a delight as Elliot; in fact, Mastroianni liked Hanks so much he removed his death scene from the script and allowed the character to live, proof of why Hanks became so successful; he's just so darn likeable.
I give He Knows You're Alone 3.5 out of 5 Stars. Given its overt similarities to Halloween, its lackluster finale and lack of gruesome kills, I can understand why this film has largely fallen off the radar and, for those who like their slashers gory and icky, this will probably disappoint. But for those who appreciate good characters, clever twists on the subject matter, and a creepy villain, Mastroianni and Parker deliver the goods, resulting in one of the better Halloween clones. And hey, it has Tom Hanks talking about Psycho. Ray Carlton might not be as effective a killer as Michael Myers but, compared to the likes of Angela Baker from Sleepaway Camp, Marty Rantzen from Slaughter High and Curt Duncan from When A Stranger Calls, I'll gladly watch Carlton cutting off heads and killing brides.

Next Up: October 6th: The Curse of The Mummy's Tomb (1964)

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