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Somebody’s Watching You: Cinema’s Creepiest Stalkers

Somebody’s Watching You: Cinema’s Creepiest Stalkers

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The stalker sub-genre has a long-standing tradition at the movies. One of the classic examples, Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty For Me, revolves around a radio DJ (Eastwood), who is stalked by an obsessed female fan (Jessica Walter) with whom he has had a fling. This basic plot device—a jilted, mentally unstable lover becoming dangerous—would lead to many iterations over the years, most notably in Adrian Lyne’s stalker classic Fatal Attraction.

The latest stalker movie, The Roommate, is about a college freshman (Minka Kelly) whose roommate (Leighton Meester) begins to dangerously obsess over her. If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s basically the same set-up as 1992’s Single White Female. If there’s one thing movie stalkers aren’t afraid of, it’s ripping off other stalker movies. With The Roommate hitting theaters today, MM thought it a perfect time to look back at some of cinema’s creepiest stalker of the last 25 years.

Fatal Attraction (1987)
directed by Adrian Lyne
This surprise hit (which perhaps owes a bit of debt to Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me) stars Michael Douglas as a smooth-talking, married attorney who has a weekend fling with a book editor (Glenn Close). Unbeknownst to Douglas, Close is a closet psychopath, who becomes obsessed with him and refuses to allow the affair to end. Fatal Attraction became a huge success, both with audiences and critics (the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Its plot (in which an emotionally fragile woman grows obsessed with an unavailable man) and its climactic finale (in which the villainess simply refuses to die) has been imitated countless times.

A few examples: 1993’s deliciously cheesy The Crush, in which 14-year-old Alicia Silverstone develops a dangerously intense attraction for a hapless writer (Cary Elwes). In Swimfan, Jesse Bradford is a promising high school senior, who finds his dreams of a swimming career nearly dashed after he engages in a one-night stand with a mentally unstable classmate (Erika Christensen), who refuses to take “no” for an answer. And in Obsessed, the happy home life of a prospering couple (Idris Elba and Beyonce Knowles) is threatened by the husband’s new, flirty secretary (Ali Larter). None of the above films was particularly well made (though they undoubtedly are entertaining and provide a healthy dose of “guilty pleasure” charm) and weren’t major hits, proving that the lightning-in-a-bottle Fatal Attraction formula, though oft-repeated, is a tricky recipe to get right.

Single White Female (1992)
directed by Barbet Schroeder
A gender spin on the Fatal Attraction formula, Single White Female could probably be considered the mother of The Roommate. Bridget Fonda plays a software designer who places an ad in the paper for a prospective roommate (“SWF”), after breaking up with her fiancé. She settles on a shy, level-headed woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), unaware of her dark, murderous past which later comes to the surface. But let’s face it—even before incriminating secrets are revealed, would you really trust someone who began to pattern themselves after you (even adopting your signature hairdo?) and could have possibly killed your new puppy? I don’t think so.

The same could be said of Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (also released in 1992), which involves another pair of women in a battle of wills—one of whom is not quite normal. Rebecca DeMornay plays a vengeful nanny out to destroy the lives of a naive new mother (Annabella Sciorra) and her family. If anything, these films prove that when looking for roommates or nannies, it’s probably best to go with someone you know (and preferably to steer clear of violent psychopaths).

Arlington Road (1999)
directed by Mark Pellington
This underrated thriller stars Jeff Bridges as a college professor who fears his new neighbors (played by an unnerving Tim Robbins and a surprisingly creepy Joan Cusack) are terrorists. What follows is a unique twist on the stalker genre, as Bridges (the protagonist) is the one who becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about his new neighbors. While the film is packed with suspenseful sequences and intense performances from its surefire cast, what’s most memorable about Arlington Road is its truly disturbing, wickedly clever twist ending, which we wouldn’t dare to reveal here. Best to experience this film for yourself, and adhere to the movie’s tagline, “fear thy neighbor.”

Nefarious neighbors have also come into play in a variety of other films, including John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, in which a couple (Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith) rent out an apartment to the worst tenant ever—Michael Keaton—whose elaborate scheme involves using the California tenant laws against the couple to obtain their property.

One Hour Photo (2002)
directed by Mark Romanek
Manic funnyman Robin Williams takes on a disturbing change-of-pace role (to put it mildly) as lonely, mild-mannered one-hour photo technician Sy Parrish in this creepy thriller from Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go). Sy, who doesn’t seem to have any family or friends, slowly ingratiates himself with a young suburban family, who have been developing their photos with him for years. Things start to turn dangerous once obsessive Sy realizes this supposedly flawless family isn’t as perfect as he originally imagined, and with that piece of news, he starts to become unhinged. One Hour Photo gives an interesting twist to the genre in that the stalker is also the protagonist of the film. Due to Williams’ excellent performance, we feel both sympathy for this solitary man, as well as become unnerved by his creepy, delusional behavior.

In addition to One Hour Photo, there have been several other movies that take the offbeat approach of adopting the point of view of the stalker. Miguel Arteta’s unnerving Chuck& Buck is a daring black comedy which always seems to be on the brink of turning into a queasy thriller. The film centers around Buck (a creepily believable Mike White, who also wrote the script) who, despite being almost 30, seems to live in a state of arrested development. He decides to move to L.A. to reunite with his childhood friend Chuck (Chris Weitz, director of New Moon and About A Boy), a successful, married music industry exec, who wants nothing to do with his disturbed childhood friend. It’s revealed that the two had a sexual relationship at the age of 11, which Buck is intent on continuing, despite Chuck’s objections. Believe it or not, things get even creepier from there.

Another, slightly less disturbing stalker movie, which also elicits an uneasy feeling in the viewer, is Martin Scorsese’s classic black comedy The King of Comedy. The lonely soul here is perpetually unfunny, wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin (played brilliantly by Robert DeNiro, who, judging by his acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, is eager to reprise the character). The object of Rupert’s obsession is TV celebrity Jerry Langford (a pitch-perfect Jerry Lewis in perhaps his best performance), whose late night talk show Rupert is determined to appear on. Though Rupert at first appears to be unassuming and harmless, once he kidnaps Jerry and demands, as a ransom, to appear on his talk show, it’s clear this unstable man may have spent a little too much time fine-tuning jokes in his mother’s basement.

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