Stranger By Night is an all but forgotten cop thriller starring Steven Bauer, a charismatic actor who, after a showcase role in Brian DePalma’s Scarface and a handful of other prolific 90’s appearances, fell from grace into the netherworld of direct to video releases, like so many other former heavy hitters. This one sits above the bilge water because of a uniquely psychological angle towards the ‘killer terrorizing an urban neighbourhood’ motif, a great central performance from him and some memorable scenes. Bauer his precinct are looking for a murderer, but the kick is that he has a sketchy mental mindset, experienced weird blackouts, fits of rage an missing hours, which not only makes tracking down any suspects difficult, but always puts the crosshairs of suspicion on him. He’s an unreliable protagonist who means well but keeps getting sabotaged by his own demons, a theme played up nicely. The story involving the killer is fairly run of the mill, but anything to do with his character developments is cool stuff, especially in an introspective conversational has with his father (J.J. Johnston). There’s another cop played by the great Michael Parks, but the underwritten role is wasted on an actor meant to shine, but at least the production benefits from his credit. This one is low key, but I enjoyed the exploration in character for Bauer, as well as a hectic opening montage that sets the maniacal tone.
Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.