There are titles in the general horror genre that stick out. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining...the list goes on. Then there are sub-genre specifics, where along with some of the memorable general horrors, you have films that are well known only in their suit. The zombie movies will usually be held up by Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, or Peter Jackson’s goopy Dead Alive. Stephen King takes the cake more than a dozen times. And those Italians always have a following, as far as Bava, Argento and Fulci films are concerned. But have you ever watched a movie that goes way beyond what expectations you first had? A film that seems to have been ignored and robbed of its specialties? In the slasher kingdom, 80s cut-em-ups like Just Before Dawn, Hell Night, and Happy Birthday to Me enjoy basking in the sun of body count glory. When Eyes of a Stranger was released in ‘81, it was trimmed immensely of its gore, some of which master Tom Savini contributed to. Now on DVD thanks to Warner Bros., the effects are fully intact, and maybe now Eyes will be accepted more by slasher fans.
A rape-murderer psychopath is shadowed by the night, stalking his female victims at random, calling them up on the phone and spreading his filthy language. A woman’s body is dumped in a mangrove swamp, another one of previous murders, believed by many to be connected with each other. Then, one night, Debbie Ormsley (Gwen Lewis) and her boyfriend Jeff (Timothy Hawkins) are murdered in her home. News reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes) tries to warn the public, aiming to have Miami work together in order to stop this lunatic. Harris soon finds herself in an unreal situation, as neighbor Stanley Herbert (John DiSanti) acts strangely suspicious. Could he be the serial killer? As more people are sliced and stabbed, evidence piles up on Herbert’s plate when he leaves behind vital clues for Jane to discover. Love interest David (Peter DuPre) doesn’t believe anything that Jane is trying to tell him. Jane also finds worry in her younger sister, blind, deaf, and mute Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She can’t put her life in danger...not after what happened...all those years ago. But Jane will see that the road she originally chose to take will be filled with haunting consequences.
A serious horror film with a touch of sleaze, Eyes of a Stranger is never talked about anymore on a regular basis. However, some scenes are quite funny. Take for example, when the crazy weatherman comes on, shouting and over exaggerating the forecast of the day. Or maybe when Jane walks through the window of an elderly couple’s home to escape being discovered sneaking at Herbert’s place. Oh yes. And there are some clichés present too. Even though it has a quality feel to it, a fake jump scare involving a mask is put to terrible use. The laughably creepy moment where Annette (Kitty Lunn) is stalked at her workplace is following another series of phone calls. Poor Annette figures out that the killer is somewhere nearby, so she hurries to the elevator and heads down. Then the phone rings. “But cell phones weren’t 1981 friendly,” you say? Correct. The ringing is coming from the elevator phone! Scream in terror! Unless you’re like me, who just finds it to be comically taunting. At least I learned something new: elevators have phones. Who says horror movies can’t entertain and educate?
I actually enjoy the kills in this film more than I should. There’s uses for a meat cleaver, a switchblade, and bare hands. In the uncut version, there are at least four notable deaths, bloody as can be. A singlehanded decapitation is fun, and flows all over Debbie’s apartment, where she will later find her boyfriend’s head in the fish tank. It seems Night School has a cousin. Speaking of horror references, in the tradition of The Prowler's fence kill, another bloody Savini’s stabbing occurs to a man just past the stage of making out in the car. His girlfriend’s throat is slit Maniac style, just like the lady on the beach. And I shall not forget the climax kill, that all I can say is, it ends with a bang. Since all these titles are jumping out at you, let’s add Dawn of the Dead, since the poster for it can be seen at the movie theater.
The phone calls are rather creepy, though not so much as Black Christmas. It’s less dirty and not so offensive, but the sleaze level continues to creep up the ladder word by word. The character of Debbie is far more noticeable with her British accent, and it is this distinction of a feature that in a way, makes her more likeable. Meanwhile, the star of the show, Jane, is really well acted by Tewes, who proves to be a smart and worthy heroine. She doesn’t wait for the killer to come to her. She endangers her own life for the good of the Miami people. That takes guts! It becomes obvious that Jane is right about Stanley Herbert being the killer a quarter of the way through. This is no guessing game. Eyes of a Stranger simply wants to show you some good death scenes, develop a likeness for an reporting woman in peril, and show you its softer side with the story of an extremely unfortunate mute/deaf/blind young lady. Then it wants to scramble the three together. Your imagination will fill in the gaps.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Tracy is good for the movie’s sake, even if she doesn’t really matter until the final fifteen minutes. I think what we really want to know is how Tracy became the way she is today. Flashbacks (thanks to sister Jane) show a healthy, seeing, hearing, and I’m going to guess, possibly speaking Tracy, but one pop into a stranger’s car and she’s helpless. We assume that she is raped, but what on earth did that bastard do to her? In the best played scene of the movie, Herbert teases Tracy by entering the apartment, unknown to her. She reaches for a knife, but it has disappeared! Then, it’s back again. “Weird!”, she must be thinking. A chair appears where she wants to walk, but it wasn’t there a moment ago. It’ll be a hard fight to fight with the loss of a couple senses, but in order to survive Tracy must face off with the killer. Who will come out on top? With the flashbacks showing you what had happened to Tracy when she was a child, it may be a little bit tough to watch parts of the ending fight scene.
Jane, as said before, is a smart cookie, and once she believes in herself, the tables turn. Look who is calling who! Although Herbert won’t admit he’s done anything, she knows. Sadly, a grave mistake may cost her everything! A flawed but very entertaining piece of slasher cinema with nothing to lose; a fittingly generic score; a fine cast and some splashes for the bloodhounds. Released on DVD in 2007 by Warner Bros., the uncut Eyes of a Stranger is available in beautiful widescreen with two of the best extras in the world! English, French and Spanish language changes and subtitles! Warner, you’ve really outdone yourself this time. But the key word here is uncut, which is enough to make me turn my head away – this time. The picture and sound quality is clear for the eyes and ears, as is expected with WB. Low on dull moments and filled with thrills, you’ll be scratching your head for the same reason I was. Find it, don’t get raped by it, stay away from the cleaver, and everybody will go home wanting a shower, but feeling accomplished. Buy it!