The Unseen: Mark Harmon Channels Ted Bundy in 'The Deliberate Stranger'


Deliberate StrangerHonestly, I have never been much for serial killer films. Though I will gladly watch a supernatural being chop his way through endless campers, and I’ll cheer while a giant monster wipes out half of the eastern seaboard, serial killers just seem a bit too real to feed my larger-than-life horror lust. Whereas I rarely find myself fretting over giant monsters or supernatural being, serial killers scare me. Yet, I totally understand the appeal and fascination behind them. And occasionally, I find my own interests tweaked towards the serial killer fare.

In my brain Mark Harmon had always been a comedy actor. Sure his roles may require drama on shows like Chicago Hope and NCIS. But Mark Harmon’s primary role in my mind was as Gym/English teacher Mr. Shoop in 1987’s Summer School. This great 80’s flick not only was hilarious, but it gave the horror world two notable icons- Chainsaw and Dave. Imagine my surprise when FEARnet’s own Rob G, told me on our podcast KILLER POV about how just one year earlier in 1986, funny man Mark Harmon had played one of America’s most frightening serial killers- Ted Bundy. I knew I had to hunt down this hard to find flick.

The Deliberate Stranger was a made-for-TV movie based on the 1980 book by Richard Larsen.  It aired in two-parts on NBC during the 1986 “sweeps”. No doubt hoping to attract fame from the news coverage on Bundy who was sitting on death row by then, NBC aired the serial killer’s tale in a primetime slot.  Much of the film focuses on Ted Bundy’s early days while still living in his home town and his travels through a number of states including Utah, Florida, and Colorado. What is perhaps most fascinating about the film is that for the first two hours, it is not even made clear that Bundy is doing the killing. I mean, of course he is doing the killing. Everyone knew that before the movie began, but the filmmakers took great care to establish Ted as a charming and likeable character before they ever show him actually doing any dirty work.

The film primarily cross-cuts between Ted’s life including his first time murders and pair of detectives who are assigned to catch a serial murder they know only as “Ted”, examining how the paths intersect and how the cops perceive the scenes Ted leaves behind. The majority of the film does not feature Ted killing, but rather shows what a normal life he had. This is where the beauty of Mark Harmon comes in. Harmon plays Ted as handsome, witty, charming, and at the same time rather upright and stiff, very much like the descriptions that were given of Bundy in real-life. Harmon actually received a Golden Globe nomination for the performance.

Horror fans may turn away from this one because of its rather wholesome nature (if you can use that word in conjunction with a serial killer flick). The Deliberate Stranger aired on network primetime long before violence and bloodshed became commonplace. The film stays focused on Ted’s stalking rather than the act of killing not only as character build but also as a means of keep the screen sanitary and blood-free. It leaves out some of the more grotesque and fascinating acts reported to be part of Bundy’s M.O. including his necrophilia and dressing of bodies. But, even though you shouldn’t be expecting an action-packed thriller, I really recommend this movie. It is a fascinating look into the mind of a real-life killer, and many of the folks who knew Bundy closely (including his lawyer) felt Harmon channeled him with perfection.

I will also give a word of warning about the soundtrack. It was the 80’s. Everything was synth. Being that this is a movie about the serial killer, the soundtrack gets a bit aggressive as times. In the words of one of my friends who joined me for the viewing of this film “it feels like the soundtrack hates me”. It can be a bit off-putting during scenes where Ted is picking up dry-cleaning and buying coffee, but it makes much more sense when you realize that even during these mundane activities, his mind was fast at work scanning and stalking potential victims.

The Deliberate Stranger is available through the Warner Archives on their made-to-order DVD system. It is not hard to find, but just one I fear time may have forgotten. It stands up nicely over time and is still just as chilling today. It also makes you wonder about the person sitting next to you on the bus or that guy who serves you your coffee. This one is definitely worth the hunt and viewing!