John Carpenter sure was busy in 1978; not only did he release the seminal Halloween, he also wrote and directed the taut TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! as well as co-writing Zuma Beach, another TV movie. But today we’re going to look at the other project he co-wrote, Eyes of Laura Mars, a slick theatrical thriller with a killer premise and enough Carpenter DNA to satisfy horror buffs.
Released in early August, Eyes (also the title of his original script) brought in around $20 million against a $7 million budget (not including ad expenses); a minor hit with audiences, and flatly received by most critics who felt its intended satirical targets - high fashion and the media’s portrayal of violence - were nothing more than window dressing in a drab storefront. But Eyes of Laura Mars does skewer its targets well enough, especially with the help of time and distance. When new, it was judged mostly on technical achievements; now it can be seen as a snapshot of a culture reflecting its ever expanding narcissism. That, and naked models.
Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway - Chinatown) is New York’s most celebrated fashion photographer; her photo spreads grace the pages of magazines and gala events. Laura’s work is meant to thrill and titillate, with recreations of crime scenes bodied by the fabulous and pretty; when NYPD detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones - Volcano) discovers that a couple of her spreads are exact replications of crime scenes unknown to the public, and he wants to know why and how she could possibly know.
But Laura has a secret that is about to be revealed and put her in danger: she sees through a killer’s eyes as he commits murder, and he’s offing her inner circle one by one; can Laura and John stop the killer before he gets to her?
Eyes of Laura Mars had a messy journey from script to screen; Carpenter’s script was scooped up, and when hairdresser turned producer Jon Peters became attached to the project, Laura’s eyes became somewhat blurry. Peters’ girlfriend at the time, Barbra Streisand, was going to play Laura but balked at the amount of violence within and backed down (although she did end up doing the single “Prisoner” which is played over the end credits). Enter Dunaway, fresh off her Oscar win for Network (1976), and a shot for Jones in an all too rare leading man role. Sounds great; meanwhile, the script kept changing typewriters, finally landing on a draft by David Zelag Goodman (Logan’s Run) that kept Carpenter’s basic structure with one notable exception: his killer was random, whereas Goodman’s script makes the killer known to us, as a final reveal. Of course in doing so, it ends up making the killer completely arbitrary, letting him (okay, making him) give a two minute speech to explain his actions.
Speaking of arbitrary, Laura’s powers are given no explanation whatsoever; not a childhood accident, a photo lab malfunction, nothing. Perhaps Carpenter’s script fleshed it out more? We may never know. There are plenty of red herrings to distract you from her Lenscrafters MacGuffin, should you find yourself trying to solve a mystery with its mantra already in place: when you run low on suspects, look to your billing.
Even though the script doesn’t lend itself to too much scrutiny, it does manage to shine an unflattering spotlight on the fashion industry during its ascension in pop culture; models became as known as the products they represented, and come across ( at least here) vacuous as such. This sounds like a Carpenter touch, spraying glittering poison at the establishment while giving the sympathetic beats to the working stiffs, such as Jones and Brad Dourif (Child’s Play) as Laura’s ex-con driver. The love story however, seems way too earnest for early Carpenter; although most thrillers tend to have one, I can picture his playing out in a much more sardonic style.
But it isn’t Carpenter at the helm, it’s Irvin Kershner, who up until that point was known for dramas and comedies such as The Return of a Man Called Horse and Up the Sandbox (ah, there’s your Streisand connection). Of course, he was about to really hit the mainstream with his next film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and it’s easy to see why George Lucas chose him based off of this film: he was good with actors, and had a clean and unfussy approach to filmmaking. He only adds some flash during the fashion shoots, as it should be; the vibrant colors obnoxiously spilling off the frame, threatening to engulf the entire screen.
The other theme of media supersaturation was popular in the day; Network itself addresses audience manipulation through exposure to atrocities, and through the device of having Laura unable to escape her visions so does Eyes - albeit in a more direct and visceral way. It seems that Laura’s punishment for foisting morbid glorification upon readers is being forced to view it herself. For real.
The cast is stacked; in addition to Dunaway, Jones, and Dourif, we also get Rene Auberjonois as Laura’s manager and Raul Julia as her ex-husband, all giving solid performances in a film that leans towards character more than plot development.
If you do choose to invest in the plot, prepare yourself for a finale that is sure to enrage and/or amuse you, depending on your propensity for the inherent absurdness that sometimes thrives in the thriller. I find Eyes of Laura Mars very amusing, and very entertaining; it’s a perfect Polaroid of its time, and if Carpenter didn’t care for it, don’t fret - he still had a pretty good year.
Eyes of Laura Mars is available on Blu-ray from Mill Creek Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (1970)