To Kill a Stranger (1987)

I’ll find every Dean Stockwell film eventually. Here’s one from 1987 with a fairly hideous soundtrack. (A character warns another, “You never saw me!” and the soundtrack follows with “dunt dunt dunnnnn.”) Let me tell you right off: This is a B-movie.

In the 1950s, Stockwell was known as a versatile child actor. As a young man, he had a good shot at being an A-list lead in serious roles (see Compulsion, Sons and Lovers, Long Days Journey Into Night, and Rapture). He’d spent essentially his whole life to that point making films, though, and it’s not hard to understand why, with all of the drugs, art, and women available to him at the time, he chose to take a little detour in the mid-1960s. Whether or not that detour was good for him as a person, it had a refracting effect on his acting career. He came out the other side making TV movies and doing episodes of Columbo. Some of those are fun (I prefer most of them to this film), but they’re a far cry from the kind of roles that earned him the top acting prize at Cannes, which he shared with Ralph Richardson, Katherine Hepburn, and Jason Robards for Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1962. His career rebounded somewhat in the 80s with films like Paris, Texas, Blue Velvet, and Married to the Mob, but it was and has remained a different animal.

Stockwell’s willingness to take the jobs that come his way–particularly since his career fell on hard times in the ’70s, has served him well as far as keeping him employed. It also means he pops up in some pretty random films. At first it looks like To Kill a Stranger is another weird little project dealing with war and corruption in a Latin American country (see Alsino and the Condor). In this case, the country in question is unnamed. To Kill a Stranger turns out to be more of a dark, mysterious old house movie with a creepy, dirty old man. Stockwell plays John, a television reporter visiting said Latin American country with his wife, Cristina (Angélica María). Cristina gets herself into a whole heap of trouble while John is at the hotel setting up an interview. When she shows up back at the hotel, they try to figure out how to get her out of trouble.

To Kill a Stranger is not unlike a TV movie in terms of the lighting, make-up, and sound. Overall, the acting is no better than a barely passable TV movie, either, though I place a lot of blame for that on the writing, which is painful. This has to be one Stockwell did for the work. First released in 1983 in Mexico, To Kill a Stranger is the last film he did before Paris, Texas marked the turning point in his career that led into roles in Dune, To Live and Die in L.A., and Blue Velvet. (The 1987 date is for the U.S. release.) He’s not all bad in To Kill a Stranger–his experience lifts some scenes. A lot of the lesser-known actors aren’t so hot, though, and at times Stockwell’s performance comes down to meet theirs. Most of the segments of the film without Stockwell are hard to watch.

The music and the direction in To Kill a Stranger approach camp. In the first 15 minutes, Cristina is driving in the rain, but it’s obvious that María is in a stationary car being mechanically jostled and pelted with water. She nearly hits a cyclist in yellow rain gear, runs her car off the road, and then yells at the cyclist as though something he did–and not her crummy driving–caused the accident. Of course there’s thunder and lightning, and of course she has to leave her car, alone in the dark. This gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect from the rest of the film.

There’s a reason it’s hard to dig up films like this one. It’s ridiculous. Then again, your mileage may vary. If you’re more into creepy, somewhat implausible 80s suspense films with horror-like moments than I am, and you don’t mind a cheesy, over-the-top soundtrack, this might have greater appeal for you than it does for me.

But you’ll still probably cringe when, about an hour in, one of John’s colleagues meets Cristina and the two of them have an awkward conversation–with John standing between them–about how she just can’t get John to cheat on Cristina. Why this scene didn’t get cut is beyond me.

File this under: The Things He Did to Get By and The Things I Did for Dean Stockwell.

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