The Stranger Within
MARE: I felt so close to you, Luke, when I was carrying you, closer than I ever felt to anyone before. You were part of me, growing inside of me, a little stranger that I loved without ever seeing or knowing. I’d have given my life for you. … I almost did when you were born, you know. There was this awful snow storm the week before Thanksgiving, I was stuck in the house and wouldn’t you know I went into labor. Phones were down, couldn’t get a doctor, anybody. We both nearly died. … (laughing, embarrassed) I was so crazy, I even saved the umbilical cord. I didn’t want to lose anything of you. And then when your father was killed, I just fell apart. You cried all the time and mother said I was doing something wrong…. I stopped being a good mother after I lost your father, Luke. Something in me thought I deserved to lose you too.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Mare loses her three-year-old to a kidnapping. Sixteen years later, her son returns with a story of horror and a secret mission of payback and murder.
When I was approached to write The Stranger Within, all I was given was a premise: a child is kidnapped, never found; sixteen years later there’s a knock at the door; a woman opens it and the young man on her doorstep says to her, “Hi, Mom.” I loved it.
The film was directed by Tom Holland, who did a remarkable job. There is a scene, for example, in which Luke, the young man who returns, nearly falls off a roof while repairing a shingle. The producer wanted to do it quick and fast; Tom said no, and proceeded to list exactly what he needed to make the sequence work – he had story-boarded it in his mind, knew the precise shots necessary, and shot it the way he envisioned it. The sequence works beautifully.
CBS dictated only one change in the script, but it was major. Luke (who now calls himself Mark, the name he was raised by) has returned, we soon learn, for revenge – he blames Mare for the horrific life he led with his “adopted” parents, the couple who kidnapped him and several other boys. Luke/Mark (played by Rick Schroeder in his first serious, adult role) has a birthmark which identifies him as Mare’s (Kate Jackson’s) true son. The way I originally wrote it, he’s shy about showing the mark (it’s on his abdomen) and we assume somewhere along the way that indeed there is no birthmark and he’s an imposter. At the end of the film, just before she shoots him, she sees the birthmark and discovers that he is indeed who he says he is – she must choose between her life and her devil-child’s. CBS asked that Mark not be her son – it was too upsetting to have her make that choice. So we changed the birthmark (we do see it early on, only to discover that it is not real) and Mare shoots the imposter. I’m sorry for that change.
There was a scene, rather ghoulish, that I enjoyed but which was never shot: Luke/Mark finds the dried umbilical cord (mentioned by Mare above) and crumbles it into dust. The other production aspect that could not be achieved was the weather – I intended the entire second half of the piece to take place in a snow storm. I love the spooky silence of impenetrable snow (see Voices In The Dark). We shot in Minnesota in late winter, but spring was advancing too rapidly. So we substituted a rain storm for the blizzard, which is unfortunate.
Still, there is much I like about this film. There is a wonderful scene between Mare’s boyfriend Dan (played beautifully by Chris Sarandon) and Mark: Dan has just saved Mark from falling off the roof and is soaking in a bathtub when Mark comes to thank him. They have a heart-to-heart – Dan has learned some unsettling things about Mark, and Mark owns up. Then, as he is about to leave, Mark knocks a tape player off a shelf, sending it falling toward the bath water. Electrocution seems imminent, but Mark grabs the recorder just before it hits the water, saving Dan’s life. “What do you know?” Mark says with a grin. “Now we’re even.”
The lake scene is terrific and (literally) chilling. It’s been copied many times since, but this is the first time I’ve seen anything like it on film, and it grows I think to a beautifully macabre extreme. There are a few moments when the film bubbles a little over-the-top emotionally, but that I blame on the television shooting-schedule we were on – we simply didn’t have the time needed to get one or two of the more difficult scenes precisely right. This is a tale that moves, quite literally, from the cradle to the grave. It’s about blame, and acceptance, and being a good-enough parent. It’s still one of my favorites.