Any slasher worth its salt should have a little bit of unique flavor; or at the very least, come at the material from a slightly different angle. Such is the case with Ken Wiederhorn’s (far and away) best film, Eyes of a Stranger (1981), a taut thriller and an effective big screen debut for Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Released by Warner Bros. in late March and produced by the Friday the 13th folks (Georgetown Productions, Inc.), Eyes barely made back its $800,000 budget, and was frowned upon by critics as just another link in a never-ending chain of misogyny and bloodletting. Eyes however, while adhering to many of the tropes of the time, gives a sense of agency to its female leads that wasn’t completely uncommon to the genre yet always refreshing to see.
Our film opens as a photographer comes across a woman, naked and dead, submerged on the shore of a Florida swamp. It turns out she is the latest in a line of rape/murders in the area, and the police have no clues. Television reporter Jane (Lauren Tewes – The Love Boat) is especially on edge and insistent that law enforcement catch the killer, as she looks after her younger sister Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight), who was left blind, deaf, and mute by an unfortunate childhood incident that Jane feels personally responsible for.
The killer is one Stanley Herbert (John DiSanti – Running Scared), a stocky and bespectacled average guy, who just happens to threaten women on the phone before tracking down and dispensing them. We follow Stanley on a couple of his murders before Jane sees him in a parking garage ridding himself of some evidence in a trash can; as it turns out, they both live in the same complex in opposing buildings. Feeling something is off about Stanley, Jane starts tracking him and discovers his hidden proclivities. There’s only one problem: Stanley finds out who she is, and her sister too…
Eyes of a Stranger falls into that sub-genre of Psycho Sleaze Studies, where we’re supposed to find out the inner workings of a diseased mind, such as Deranged (1974), Don’t Go in the House (1979), Maniac (1980), and Don’t Answer the Phone (also ’80); but because this is a big studio release, the more disturbing imagery and impulses are tempered somewhat. Oh they’re there; female nudity abounds, as does an air of male domination. Yet Eyes wisely doesn’t focus on what makes Stanley tick, nor make any sympathetic gestures towards understanding him; he simply is, which makes DiSanti’s low key portrayal all the more creepy. Wiederhorn used DiSanti as the Belushi clone in his bizarre Animal House rip off King Frat, and to say he offers up more here besides drinking and farting is an understatement.
Speaking of Wiederhorn, his first film was in the genre, the Nazi zombie (to me, anyway) snoozer Shock Waves (1977), and while that film has a whole heapin’ of meanderin’ between water logged fascist attacks, Eyes sets up its Rear Window/Halloween premise in a clear and precise way, and Wiederhorn keeps things moving along. Very helpful indeed, as the plot is achingly familiar; certain shots are right out of the Carpenter playbook, and the strings occasionally swell to Manfredini proportions (which is to say, Herrmann-esque). No, where Ron Kurz (Friday the 13th Part 2)’s script excels is in his depiction of the heroines, Jane and Tracy; their familial bond and unique dilemma adds layers to what would otherwise be a humdrum story.
Tracy was abducted and raped as a child; Jane and her friends had left her outside for a few minutes and she climbed into the car of a predator, which led to her condition of shutting out the world. Jane needs to protect Tracy at all costs to not only prevent something happening to her again, but for her own redemption; it’s this arc that puts meat on the bones and pulls the story through any slow patches. Of course, Audrey Hepburn was put through similar paces in Wait Until Dark (1967); but originality isn’t necessary for a slasher to work, only a willingness to follow through on its convictions – which Eyes does, through good performances and solid effects work from Tom Savini (even though much was trimmed prior to release). Tewes and Leigh are convincing as siblings, with the former getting better the stronger her character gets, and the latter playing on the audience’s sympathies without overstating her disabilities.
There are some humorous homages to giallos as well; Wiederhorn lays on the breakneck pans, wild zooms and blues and reds splashed across Jane’s apartment. If it weren’t for the English speaking cast and relative restraint, Eyes could pass for an Italian stabfest.
But audiences couldn’t be bothered at the time; restraint, relative or not, did not put asses in seats when the times called for more – more blood, more sex, more depravity. And while Eyes of a Stranger certainly is a part of that time, by pulling back just a bit (whether intentional or not) one can focus on a strong study of sisterly bonds and commitment. And yes, Stanley. It’s still very much a horror movie.
Eyes of a Stranger is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: ASYLUM (1972)