I'll state up front that I've never been a stalker (well I wouldn't admit it here if I was, would I?) and have also never been a victim of stalking. More to the point, I've never been able to understand the mindset of the stalker, a person whose obsessive passion for someone they've sometimes never even met consumes every moment of their waking life, prompting them to follow that person around just for a few glimpses a day, presumably under the delusion that the object of their devotion is going to fall in love with them and welcome them into their life. Some years ago I did have a friend who was the victim of a stalker, aggressively pursued by a girl he had broken up with after her misplaced jealousies began to border on physical violence. The experience reduced him to a nervous wreck, genuinely afraid to pick up the phone or answer the door lest she be waiting outside for him. When I was pouring scorn on Fatal Attraction, he was shuddering at every scene.
Films involving stalkers have tended towards the sensational. The aforementioned Fatal Attraction belatedly spawned a range of offshoot thrillers such as Living in Peril (1997), Rendering (2002), Stalker (2002), One Hour Photo (2002) and I'll Be Seeing You (2004), and it was virtually remade in 2002 as Swimfan. One of the most imaginative twists on the stalker theme was the 1998 Following, the debut feature of Memento's Christopher Nolan, while the concept of telling a story partly from the stalker's viewpoint was explored in Chris Petit's experimental Unrequited Love (2006).
I'll admit to being sympathetic to Eric Nicholas' take on the Stalker movie even before I saw a frame of the film. Over a hundred years after the birth of cinema there are, it has to be said, precious few new stories left to tell, and studios and independent filmmakers alike are often reduced to searching for new takes on old tales. The division appears to lie in the nature of that twist – while the studios search for one that has been tried and tested elsewhere, the more enterprising independents are still genuinely looking to show us something fresh, a viewpoint or approach to their chosen story that we may not have encountered before. Of course, the problem with the sheer volume of cinema out there, and the fact that most of us get to see but a small fraction of the worldwide releases each year, is that even then it's hard to be sure something really is new. Make claims for originality and I can almost guarantee someone will be quick to cite an earlier example of the same thing that you weren't even aware of the existence of. I'm thus not going to risk claiming that Nicholas' second film is breaking new ground, but his approach is both intriguing and low-budget friendly, in a way that enhances the storytelling rather than compromising it.
The story takes an interesting spin on familiar elements. 20-something salesman Doug is spying on girls in public places with a concealed camcorder, when he catches sight of attractive young aspiring artist Amy (most likeably played by Mexican actress Ana Claudia Talancon) in a state of inexplicable distress. Doug quickly develops an obsession for her, one that escalates when he breaks into her apartment and installs a number of wireless hidden cameras, allowing him to monitor every move and every word spoken within her home. He uses the information he gathers to manufacture an amicable and seemingly accidental meeting between them, where their apparently shared film and musical tastes kick off a friendship that Doug starts to manipulate towards something more intimate.
Right from the off the film establishes itself as a cautionary tale for the modern age through the ease with which Doug is able to capture images for later misuse, and the easy availability and low cost of the surveillance equipment required to turn Amy's apartment into the Big Brother house. The setup is made all the more creepy by the revelation that all of this equipment is for real and freely accessible to anyone who wants it (and in America at least, perfectly legal), and that the camera angles chosen by Nicholas for his hidden footage were all based on material recorded by actual stalker voyeurs who had been caught and prosecuted.
This leads me to what could easily have been passed off as the film's gimmick but is in fact a key element of its effectiveness. Rather than shoot the film in a conventional manner, Nicolas elected to construct his drama entirely from Doug's surveillance footage, with all of the action presented as it would be recorded by his hidden cameras. This approach forces us to see things exclusively through Doug's eyes, creating a bond between the audience and the protagonist that is frequently uncomfortable, not least for the odd moments where we find ourselves sympathising with and even rooting for him. We become complicit in his actions in a manner that taps disarmingly into the voyeur that lurks in all of us, and unless you've never watched a reality show, glanced a celebrity magazine, taken a good look as you passed by a road accident, listened in on a conversation, idly wondered about even a single aspect of another's life or even watched a movie, then that really does include you.
This viewpoint identification is enhanced by the decision to keep Doug invisible for the first half-hour, and when he does appear he's hardly the sinister predator of more sensationalist movie takes on the subject matter. (That said, this nervous nerd with a dark side does itself border on public perception cliché, the put-upon computer geek loner who bothers no-one but is primed to one day go postal with a duffle bag full of guns.) Audience allegiance is kept on the hop as we find ourselves curiously hopeful for the shy boy trying to land the date of his dreams, but simultaneously disturbed by his methods and appalled at the increasingly extreme lengths to which he is prepared to go to remove any obstructions that arise. A phone call to disrupt a meeting with an impending boyfriend is one thing, but once he starts poisoning Amy's milk and lacing her pillow with skin irritant to keep the pair apart it becomes clear that jealousy is moving into considerably darker territory.
Ingenious, involving and at times genuinely tense, Alone With Her successfully highlights (and inevitably exploits) the changing nature of privacy invasion in an electronic age. There are issues only touched on here that deserve further exploration, not least the public platform for such surreptitiously gathered material offered by the internet and the psychological effect on the victims, both of which are deserving of movies of their own. Nonetheless, the message is sound and effectively packaged, and the movie itself bodes well for Nicholas' future projects.
On the commentary track director Nicholas provides some specific detail on the shooting format for us techies, that the film was shot on HD on a Sony F900 and that the image quality was so good that it had to be downgraded to look even remotely like surveillance camera footage (conversely, Nicholas's original plan to use real surveillance camera footage was shelved when it proved too poor to blow up to 35mm). Although this gives the image a distinctively video look, this is always appropriate, and within this restriction the contrast and detail are both rather good. The transfer here appears to have been standards converted from an NTSC original rather than from the film print – the running time match and occasional judders on motion are a giveaway. The framing is 1.71:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is clear with a decent dynamic range and some very good bass on music rumbles.
Commentary by director Eric Nicolas
Nicholas provides some useful and detailed background to the film, its technical aspects, the real stalker footage that shaped the style and specific scenes, the actors and characters, and the production in general. Information is given on cut scenes and why they were removed, and the character Doug is profiled in some detail. A busy and informative commentary, the only real issue is the too-common one of a director telling us how much he loves this shot, scene, performance, etc.
Interview with Eric Nicholas & stars Collin Hanks & Ana Caludio Talancon (5:22)
The three key personnel are interviewed but a quick look at that running time should give you an idea how compressed this feels. Inevitably there's some crossover with the commentary in Nicolas's bit (the story about the casting of his female lead is almost word-for-word), but Hanks and Talacon suggest that voyeurism is something that has almost universal interest and that there's a little bit of Doug in everyone. Interesting stuff, but WAY too short, The sound is less than perfect, too.
Deleted Scenes and alternate ending (5:25)
They add little, although the alternate ending is interesting
A tricky sell that just about comes off without revealing too much.
An intriguing, inventive thriller that almost makes a virtue of its low budget instead of being crippled by it – the formulaic elements are still present, but there's a freshness to Nicolas's approach that works beyond my admiration for his technical gamble. Metrodome's DVD has an NTSC to PAL transfer but it's a good one and those occasional motion glitches aren't a problem given that this is meant to look like video anyway. For indie thriller fans in particular this is well worth a look.