Watchtower (2001) poster

Watchtower (2001)


aka Cruel and Unusual

Canada. 2001.


Director – George Mihalka, Screenplay – Rod Browning, Robert Geoffrion & Dan Witt, Producers – John Curtis, Richard O. Lowry & Evan Tylor, Photography – Peter Benison, Music – Michel Cusson, Special Effects Supervisor – Bill Mills, Production Design – John Meighen. Production Company – H30 Filmed Entertainment/GFT Entertainment/Frontline Entertainment/Watchtower Films (BC) Ltd.


Tom Berenger (Art Stoner), Tygh Runyan (Mike O’Conner), Rachel Hayward (Kate O’Conner), Ralph Alderman (Jack), Eli Gabay (Adam Terrell)


Adam Terrell, a California English professor heading up the Washington State coast on a leave of absence so that he can write a novel, picks up hitchhiker Art Stoner. Art proceeds to kill him, then assumes Adam’s identity and takes over the job that Adam had signed up for over the duration of his sabbatical, tending a remote lighthouse watchtower. Working and living alongside him is troubled teen Mike O’Conner who has been given the job by his local sister Kate as an alternative to a jail sentence and is hating every moment of it. The domineering Art pushes Mike into shape, befriending him but also beating him up when he strays out of line. At the same time, Art woos and seduces Kate. Mike gradually begins to realise that Art/Adam is a serial killer who befriends and sleeps with his victims before killing them.

Canada’s George Mihalka is a director who has floated around the genre for nearly two decades with films such as My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Blue Man/Eternal Evil (1985), Psychic (1992), Relative Fear (1994) and Race to Mars (tv mini-series, 2007), none of which have amounted to anything more than mediocre B movies. One sat down to watch Watchtower/Cruel and Unusual with little in the way of expectation and but surprisingly it proves to be one effort where George Mihalka gets it all together.

Watchtower/Cruel and Unusual offers Mihalka the best budget he has ever had to date and he does wonders with it. There is some particularly beautiful and impressive location scenery – despite being set in Seattle, the film is in actuality shot a little further up the coast in the somberly beautiful area of Vancouver Island, where Mihalka does a fine job of capturing the verisimilitude of a small fishing town.

Psychopathic lighthouse keeper Tom Berenger with Rachel Hayward in Watchtower (2001)
Psychopathic lighthouse keeper Tom Berenger with Rachel Hayward

Mihalka also generates the psycho-thriller elements rather well. Tom Berenger is not a standard psycho – he is a character who is much more ambiguously shaded than usual (and contains one of Berenger’s best performances in some time). The central triangle between Berenger, the troubled Tygh Runyan and Runyan’s sister Rachel Hayward is well developed in terms of jealousies, doubt and manipulation, into which is wound the interesting background theme of all three character’s abusive childhoods.

Mihalka occasionally slips – the cuts from Tom Berenger producing his switchblade to fish being gutted are crude, and the film’s climax is unremarkable. However, there are fine scenes like the chess game between Tom Berenger and Tygh Runyan where Berenger tells what his novel is about where it gradually becomes apparent that what he is telling is the story of his own abused past, and where all the tension in the scene is denoted by the aggressively amplified slamming of the chess pieces onto the board and the swinging of a rosary in his hand.

(Nominee for Best Cinematography at this site’s Best of 2001 Awards).

Trailer here

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