February 01, 1982 12:00 PM

In Friday the 13th, director Sean Cunningham’s 1980 low-budget shocker, a spike is driven through the back of a man’s neck and emerges bloodily in front. In A Stranger Is Watching, this year’s cheap shocker, Cunningham has the spike go in the front of the neck and come out the back. So much for artistic development. Cunningham has taken Mary Higgins Clark’s suspenseful, densely plotted bestseller about a psycho who holds a child and a female newscaster hostage in the catacombs beneath Grand Central Station and has turned it into a horror show. It is, though, charnel house cinema par excellence, and fans of the genre are bound to stand in awe of Cunningham’s imagination in killing off most of his cast. Despite some impressive on-location photography, admirers of Clark’s novel will be less enthusiastic. Unlike the book, the film doesn’t build, it bludgeons. With no time for characterization, Kate (Mrs. Columbo) Mulgrew as the newscaster, Shawn Von Schreiber, 10, as the kidnapped girl and James Naughton as her harried father are no more than efficient puppets. Rip Torn, however, enlivens the villain role. Whether he’s eating egg salad with his fingers, lasciviously lifting Mulgrew’s skirt or tossing an old lady on the tracks, Torn is the most hiss-worthy bad guy since Richard Widmark’s giggling gangster in Kiss of Death. In one scene, just before knifing an old man, he cheerfully gives his paperboy a big tip. Nobody’s perfect. (R)

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