Eyes of a Stranger 1981
Directed by: Ken Wiederhorn
Starring: Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti
Luisito Joaquín González
I am interested, of the two most important horror ingredients, which one do you prefer? Are you a fan of gruesome gore or teeth-clenching suspense? Let’s put it another way. If you went to the local multiplex and were in the mood for a bit of terror and there were two choices showing: – In screen one a gratuitous Grindhouse gore-filled slaughter-thon and in screen two a taut suspense marathon, which would you buy a ticket for? It’s a good question, right?
Now I love seeing someone get an axe in the face as much as the next man (on screen of course). In reality, I think I’m more amazed by watching a true craftsman manipulate timing and framing to make me bite my nails than I am watching someone spill pig’s intestines everywhere in close-up. Eyes of a Stranger is an interesting case, because its synopsis hints at the formula of suspense classics like Rear Window, Someone’s Watching Me or When a Stranger Calls, but it has gore effects by Tom Savini. Could this be one of the extremely few horror films that delivers on both counts…?
There’s a maniac terrorising Miami and committing gruesome rapes and murders. Jane Harris, an ambitious reporter, becomes involved when she begins to suspect a creepy neighbour that lives directly opposite. She has always felt responsible for what happened to her younger sister who was attacked and as a result lost her hearing, sight and the ability to speak. Can she find the evidence to stop the creepy killer?
Unlike in my country of birth, a sunny day in the UK is very hard to come by. Earlier this year, we woke up and looked out the window and the sun was scorching at 8am. We packed up our bucket and spade, I put on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and we jumped on the train to Bournemouth. Halfway through the trip, I started to feel a little cold and suddenly a big ominous cloud appeared in the sky. As soon as we arrived, Señor sol had disappeared and it started to hammer down with rain. To cut a short story even shorter we ended up on the next train home. So what had started as a glorious adventure, ended up being a water-drenched nightmare and my Bermuda trunks have never recovered.
Eyes of a Stranger is a very similar experience to the one that I just mentioned, as in it kicks off exceptionally well, but then the clear blue sky turns a bit grey and the sun never manages to break back through. I will only ever post a review of an uncut movie as censor intervention can have a massive effect on the final result of a feature (Cherry Falls anybody?). Well Tom Savini’s inclusion here was pretty pointless as aside from one standout sequence, there’s nothing notable from his work. Certainly no blame can be put on his shoulders, but you’d think that any producer willing to fund his presence on set must’ve had the motivation to make the most of his capabilities. Stranger doesn’t really give him enough to work with. There’s some decent stuff here, but too many of the killings are off screen.
The first featured murder is superb and mixes jump scares, tight framing, brutality and some pretty good gore. One guy gets decapitated with a cleaver and his head chucked in a fish tank (check that hand twitching) and then the female is attacked by the masked menace (you can see it uncut above). This was a pretty terrifying opening and we were expecting some more of the same. Funnily enough, after the introduction of the final girl, the slide to mediocrity began.
There are three things that ruin Eyes of a Stranger. Firstly, the script gives too much time to the psychopath and he doesn’t get characterised as well as say, in a movie like Maniac. There are no real shots of him behaving like a loon and instead we just see him sitting down to have his dinner and with all due respect to John DiSanti, he just doesn’t ooze scariness. He’s certainly no bad actor, but he has a kind of everyday bloke-ness about him and for me, he just doesn’t cut it as a bogeyman. The synopsis would have been wiser to take the Somebody’s Watching Me route of keeping the assailant in the shadows. In its ambition not to feel like a rip-off (which it is), it deliberately breaks the most important rule: Don’t give your monster too much screen time.
Next up we have our final girl (or in effect we are given two of them). Again there’s nothing here that would suggest that Lauren Tewes couldn’t handle the role, but the story portrays her character as foolish and annoying rather than victimised and brave. Instead of unintentionally crossing paths with the maniac, she invites him to stalk her by being plain stupid. She’s a victim due to her own actions and not for any other reason. Jennifer Jason Leigh on the other hand gives a good enough Laurie Strode impression, albeit a blind, deaf and mute one. The only thing that I didn’t like was the fact that she had to flash her breasts. It just felt pointless and took away some of her innocence – final girls just shouldn’t do that.
Lastly, the movie has some serious problems with its pacing. It’s hard to put a finger on why it can’t sustain its momentum, but once it starts to drag, it never really picks itself back up. If ever there was a fine chance to build suspense, it was in the apartment scene. Jane thinks that she knows who the killer is, so she breaks in to his flat and begins searching for some proof. Meanwhile he is downstairs waiting for the lift. Can she get out in time or will he catch her in his wardrobe? You couldn’t dream of a better route to create some tension, but director Ken Wiederhorn doesn’t manage to make anything of the situation. If he fails to excite in a scenario like that, you can be sure that it’s not going to get any better. There’s the old slasher trademark of two randy youngsters in a car parked up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The build up is good, the gore effects are neat (the second best of the feature), but the shot feels rushed and there are no real shocks.
I liked the pretty decent score and even if this is by no means the best of Tom Savini, it is Tom Savini all the same. Jennifer Jason Leigh put up a good battle with the killer and the cat and mouse chase in the apartment between them was pretty intense. It was particularly mean spirited the way that he was mocking her disabilities and tormenting her by moving items around in front of her. I am struggling to think of any other positives. Well… it’s nicely acted and it looks professional. It’s also another of those slasher/thriller features of which there were plenty of back then (Eyes of Laura Mars, Dressed to Kill) and… umm … well did I mention Tom Savini?
I really wanted to like Eyes of a Stranger, because it’s the one peak-period slasher that I had never got round to watching until now. I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if it was just plain bad, but the problem is that it showed glimpses of genius, but never made the most of them. I gave it two stars because well… I would pick this over the majority of new-skool slashers, but as a time-capsule from the overkill years, it’s not one of the strongest.
Final Girl √√
Directed by: Fred Olen Ray
Starring: Jo-Ann Robinson, Richard Hench, Roger Maycock
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Looking back that whole video-nasty thing was really just a big anti climax. Kind of like sharing a bed with Christina Hendricks and finding out that she’d just given her vow to a nunnery. In the UK, films like Pranks and Madhouse were reputed to be so vile and depraved that the thought of sitting through one of them felt like stealing your next door neighbor’s car and going banger racing round the block. When you finally saw them, it was like, “Oh was that really what all the fuss was about?” That’s why it’s nice to come across a title that someway lives up to its exaggerated reputation. Scalps certainly delivers on the gore score and includes one or two grisly scenes that somewhat exceed the expectations of the shoestring budget. The Grim Reaper and Mystery in Rome also boasted extreme gore scenarios, but still couldn’t lift themselves above mediocrity. I hoped that Scalps could support the bloody stuff with a few decent shocks and surprises.
Six bizarrely spaced out anthropology students head out to the Californian Desert to dig up Indian artifacts. Despite a crazy Ralph-style ominous warning from an old Indian named Billy Iron Wing, they continue their journey deep into the vastly uninhabited wasteland. Whilst digging in the blistering sun, the troupe unwittingly evoke the wraith of Black Claw, the spirit of an evil renegade who died one hundred years earlier. Before long he has possessed one of the gang members and begins to slaughter the rest of them one by one. Stranded in the remote wilderness, the remaining students realize that they have to fight to survive his murderous intentions…
Fred Olen Ray tells us on the very informative DVD commentary track that the original distributors of Scalps took the liberty of editing the movie themselves in an attempt to make it more appealing to the commercial market. Unfortunately, what they did was pretty much make a mish-mash of a film that would have been a damn site more intelligible if they had just released it as the director had originally intended. That explains why we see images of the killer roaming the hills before he has even taken possession of the body that he uses to stalk his victims. Despite these unintentional blunders, Olen Ray’s slasher entry is a worthwhile addition to anyone’s horror collection. Yes it’s easy to mock the amateurish dramatics, unfocused photography and choppy editing. I’m very sure that any film critique worth his salt could quite rightly rip the production standards to shreds. It’s when you consider the fact that this is probably THE most poorly-financed of the early eighties genre additions, then you have to give credit for the fact that it manages to do what many bigger budgeted efforts from the time couldn’t come close to. You see, for all its shoestring and money skimping short cuts, you just cannot deny that Scalps is still one hell of an unsettling movie experience.
The director wisely chose to mimic John Carpenter’s method of creating an eerie soundtrack and keeping it playing continuously throughout the runtime. When merged with lengthy shots of the spacious desert, a credibly creepy and extremely desolate feeling is built and sustained. The pace is a tad too slow in places, but you’re always aware that something is going to happen soon. When the shocks finally arrive they certainly deliver perhaps more brutality than you were expecting. There’s a notorious ‘rape’ sequence included, which feels all the more mean spirited because the victim has her throat messily slashed, before being scalped moments after. We also see a pretty effective decapitation that shows a plausible flair for the macabre from the director. Not many horror films can create the feeling of isolation that Scalps carries so effortlessly, and that’s why this movie in its uncut form is so severely underrated.
Unfortunately, all thie pluses don’t come without their share of problems. The lighting is no less than awful in places, which is mainly obvious because one minute the characters will be sitting around a camp fire in total darkness and then the next scene will look like it was filmed at around 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s obvious that any early eighties miniscule slasher production isn’t going to have the best lighting rig in Hollywood, but when it boils down to a handful of candles and two flashlights, questions seriously do need to be asked. Perhaps Olen Ray would’ve done better to shoot all the action in the afternoon light, instead of trying to outgrow his finances. As I said earlier, the acting is as block-like as an antique timber yard and some of the camera operators look to have turned up on the set after a 24-hour rendezvous with Jim Bean and Jack Daniels. It’s also worth noting that the bemusing tag lines on most VHS releases make this sound like some type of zombie flick. Don’t be fooled. It is 100% stalk and slash and it looks like the person responsible for the cover blurb didn’t even bother watching the movie.
Scalps is still mean and creepy enough to earn a decent three-star star rating. It is most certainly shoe-lace funded, but when you consider the fact that drivel like Trick or Treat cost almost three times as much to make, then you have to say that this is a pretty decent chunk of slasher memorabilia. It certainly has the potential to be updated and remade; there just haven’t been enough crazy Native American killers! Certainly worth a look and definitely undeserving of the 2.9 rating that it has on the IMDB
Final Girl √√