Donald Cammell danced to his own tune; he only directed four films over twenty-six years before taking his own life, but each was unique and thrilling in their own peculiar way. Case in point: White of the Eye (1987), his meditation on toxic masculinity and dead ends told through the prism of an Americanized Giallo film; it’s a film that purposely piles on the unease until the images shatter the screen with style and sheen.
Released by Palisades Entertainment Group Stateside in May of ‘88, White actually premiered in its native U.K. the previous summer, as well as playing at Cannes that year. Prestigious? Sure, for those who followed Cammell’s unusual career trajectory through tumult and triumph. As for the general public, White was definitely a question mark - a horror film, a thriller, or an odd domestic drama? - and sank without a trace. But thirty-three years after its debut, White of the Eye still sizzles and pops in the blistering Arizona sun.
One irrefutable fact: the film is damn weird. For its time that is; many of the aesthetic choices seem patterned on the Italian Giallo films that plastered the grindhouses of New York without bothering the heartland. Therefore often seen as “arthouse”, the direct influence of these films registered the most with those in tune with European cinema or horror fans already steeped in it. (And there weren’t a whole lot of those around in ‘87.) Therefore again, White of the Eye mostly failed to make an impact beyond those obliged to review a new Cammell.
The film opens with the brutal murder of a wealthy suburban housewife in a small Arizona town. Not the first in the area as a matter of fact, and this brings in Detective Charles Mendoza (Art Evans - Fright Night) from Tucson to investigate. His first bit of evidence - quite uncommon tire tracks - leads him to studly stereo guru Paul White (David Keith - Firestarter), a hit with the rich women around town, and an increasingly suspicious wife, Joan (Cathy Moriarty - Neighbors). All tracks lead to Paul as Mendoza closes in; is he in fact a serial killer, or is someone trying to frame him for past sins?
Well, let’s wade into spoiler territory here and admit that Paul is in fact our killer; this is not a whodunnit even though Cammell waits until the third act to reveal Paul’s true nature. As the audience we’re really given no other suspect options than the character of Mike (Alan Rosenberg - The Wanderers), Joan’s ex-boyfriend and the reason she ended up in the town ten years prior and fell under Paul’s spell. When we find that Mike is back in town and a little psychologically worse for wear, we give brief thought to his culpability but always circle back to Paul, his alpha vibes unwavering under the closest of scrutiny.
Joan doesn’t want to believe that Paul could be responsible for such carnage (there are a couple of brilliantly staged deaths to satisfy and solidify the film’s Giallo leanings), although she has no difficulty sussing out his infidelity; one of the film’s best scenes has her ripping him a new one in a police interrogation room, her rage seething and more than justifiable. But murder? That’s a sin below their strata.
Cammell seems to take great pleasure inflicting trauma on the well-to-do; or worse, on those whose social status is merely being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. This certainly seems to be Paul’s justification for his calling (besides acting as if he’s receiving messages embedded in Native mysticism); the women all “deserved” it for airing a scent of moral superiority that only he could inhale. Cammell offers no defense of his antagonist, only an unblinking honesty towards his behaviour. Sometimes, bad is just bad.
And while the dialogue skitters close to arch (Cammell co-wrote with his wife, China), it’s the visuals that truly stick. Working with (noted documentary cinematographer) Larry McConkey, Cammell mimics the faux chic often associated with Giallo, placing it in the middle of the desert as a filmic anachronism, and to present the malady as Paul sees it. The film, apropos of the title, is all about seeing - how we are seen by others, how we view them, and how we see ourselves. Expect a lot of eyeball closeups and pupil dilation in the mix, not to mention the gloves of our killer.
Cammell’s fetishistic approach mirrors Giallo perfectly during the murders; goldfish gasp in cooked lamb’s blood, red flowers are strewn across a white floor and a twine wrapped victim squirms for air in a filled bathtub. Otherwise he veers toward the naturalistic when not inside Paul’s Technicolor mind, moving from grainy 35mm to granier 16mm for flashbacks involving Mike and Joan’s first encounter with the town. Originally a painter, Cammell uses broad strokes on film to get his points across; here he shows us the foibles of man in the simplest of ways, free from sympathy yet filled with a sobering dread.
I couldn’t leave out mentioning the cast, poised and positioned as they are in an ill-fated triangle where obsession isn’t as deadly as possession. This is a Moriarty with her defenses down; unusual to this viewer, therefore doubly as effective before she finds the resolve to fight Paul. Rosenberg makes an efficient foil/hero during his sporadic appearances, and Keith plays the smug lothario with barely contained anger ready to erupt at any interference in his perceived privilege of male dominance.
White of the Eye was Cammell’s second to last feature; whatever else he may have accomplished is left to the ether. Suffice it to say what he left behind is as unique and indelible as the iris of a smiling sociopath.
White of the Eye is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978)