Following the horror juggernaut that was Halloween (1978), major studios were very interested to hop in bed with stalk and slay splatterfests. When the Paramount distributed Friday the 13th (1980) looked to be muy lucrative, the big boys jumped hard on the mattress to see how much coin they could dislodge. MGM was no different, and made their claim with He Knows You’re Alone (1980), a film that ultimately survived the dog pile with winning characterizations over slavish Carpenter imitations.
Filmed in December of ’79 on Staten Island and released at the end of summer, He Knows You’re Alone made nearly $ 5 million for MGM against a meager $ 250,000 budget. A tidy profit to be sure, but it was recognized by most critics (and horror fans alike) as a messy pastiche of everything that worked about Halloween but operating with a lot less wattage. I think that’s only partially true – He Knows actually manages to create memorable characters, thanks to a (mostly) first rate cast and a script by Scott Parker (Die Laughing) that is more interested in people than murder.
We open on a couple making out in a car in the woods. They hear a sound, he investigates, and death ensues. The camera pulls back to reveal we’re actually in a movie theatre watching a run of the mill slasher. (Not made by MGM, I’m assuming.) A frightened filmgoer heads down to the washroom and believing someone is following her, races back to her seat, only to be permanently silenced with a knife through the back of her chair. (And this isn’t even a Drafthouse.) Enter a cop (Lewis Arlt) who believes the murder to be the work of the same killer (Tom Rolfing) who offed his ex-girlfriend on the day of her wedding to the officer. Why? Because theatre girl was engaged to be married. (Hunches are the best.)
Cut to our main protagonist Amy (Caitlan O’Heaney – Late Phases), sending her fiancé off on a wild bachelor party for the weekend before their impending nuptials as she hangs back with her college pals Nancy (Elizabeth Kemp – The Killing Hour) and Joyce (Patsy Pease – Days of Our Lives). The problem is, everywhere Amy goes, she’s followed by the matrimonial mangler – for her gown fitting, the ice cream parlor, the carnival – except no one sees him but her. As the killer closes in and disposes of her inner circle, Amy is aided by her ex-boyfriend Marvin (Don Scardino – Squirm), who uses her wedding jitters (and impending doom) to ingratiate himself back into her life. Will Marvin win Amy back before there’s no Amy to win?
Without a doubt, there are some hurdles to jump through to fully enjoy He Knows You’re Alone; the music is quite Myers-esque in parts (with some unfortunate help from a squishy synthesizer), our substitute Loomis doesn’t register at all (I mean, when you have Paul Goddamned Gleason playing another cop in the picture, why doesn’t he have the lead?), and the stalking scenes are lifted right from the Cundey Playbook.
But…in between the more or less standard kills (there are some effective moments, more on those in a bit) are conversations and interactions that go deeper than your usual slasher. The film leans into Amy’s insecurities and doubts - everyone thinks she’s losing her mind and manifesting because she’s unsure about the impending wedding. (This includes a speech from a psych major played by some kid named Tom Hanks, who had a short lived TV career and some other credits after this. Very charming guy.) Not only that, but we get a subplot between Joyce and her college professor, played by James Rebhorn (The Game) that results in one of the better sequences in the film. Surprisingly, the more character driven beats don’t slow the film down, but instead add depth and nuance outside of the normal tropes – these are all well rounded adults with pressing real life concerns.
The relationship between Amy and Marvin is the nucleus of He Knows You’re Alone, with absolutely terrific performances from O’Heaney and Scardino. They still carry a torch for one another, and have a sweet chemistry that’s woven through the entire running time, fluffing up any pillows flattened by the rather limp procedural. (Side bar: I always find detective work useless in a horror movie if we already know who the killer is. This ain’t Murder She Wrote.) Director Armand Mastroianni (The Killing Hours) offers up a couple of very atmospheric sequences in addition to his empathetic rapport with his cast; and if you’re wondering whether we’re talking about a Lifetime movie or a slasher flick, you get a (admittedly off-screen) beheading/ fish fodder, multiple stabbings, and an especially creepy funhouse scene where our bug eyed killer lurks in the shadowed neon. And keeping up with the hygiene standards of the times, there is naturally a shower scene. (Side bar #2: If one were to make a supercut out of every horror film shower scene, it would be longer than Doctor Zhivago, but with much less Julie Christie.) Oh, and Scream 2 lovers take note - this one did the theatre scene first, and better.
He Knows You’re Alone has the good fortune to be nestled in the first cycle of post- Halloween slashers; had it debuted even a couple of years later, the Carpenter comparisons would be even harder to forgive. (Side bar #3: The sooner the sheets are pulled from the wash, the less wrinkled they will be. What’s true for horror is true for housekeeping.) But there are plenty of early ‘80s knifers to help you get your gory groove on; this one wants you to have a rest on the bed in between the thrusts of the blade. You can always pick up the coins later.
He Knows You’re Alone is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: BUG (1975)