eyes of a stranger is the most generic thriller i’ve ever seen. neither good nor bad, it actually takes a bit of effort after watching it to remember that you’ve seen it as absolutely no aspect of the film makes either a positive or negative impression. if friday the 13th were a piece of devil’s food cake, this film would be a small bowl of vanilla pudding. if halloween were a cherry red ferrari, this film would be a tan colored four-door sedan. i’ve always been aware of eyes of a stranger, but for some reason have never actually sat down to watch it. despite its rather interesting cover art, the utter blandness of the film itself makes me think that years from now i’ll see its dvd case again and think much what i thought last night before putting it in… “why have i never seen this movie?”
eyes of a stranger is essentially a blending of the most boring parts of maniac, rear window and wait until dark. stealing equally from all three, the story features a sexually repressed, overweight and blubbering rapist and murderer , a reporter and amateur sleuth who spots the killer from her apartment balcony in the adjoining building and an attractive blind girl who faces off with the sighted killer in the film’s climax. the tone owes more to hitchcock than the average slasher film but, thanks to tom savini, it manages some graphic death sequences (but even the best of these rank far below average when compared to savini’s other work during the same period).
the potential victims in this particular film have two very big advantages over most slasher film characters. to begin with, the killer is not really the most intimidating of slashers. sure, he does behead a guy and almost shot-for-shot recreates the car death from halloween… but mostly what he does is giggle in way that doesn’t really scare you as much as just make you kind of embarrassed. part of the reason for his ineffectiveness has to lie in his name. krueger. myers. voorhees. those are the kinds of names you want if you’re an unstoppable killing machine. the name you don’t want is the one from eyes of stranger… stanley herbert.
secondly, the characters in this movie are way ahead of the game as stanley’s fear-inducing object of choice is not a chainsaw or machete — it’s a telephone. while i’ll admit that creepy phone calls can cause a bit of fear (e.g., black christmas), telephones are much easier to flee from than one might initially think. then again, at one point stanley finds a way to make the phone in the elevator ring while a girl is trying to escape to a friend’s house, which i’m fairly certain is impossible unless he found his way into the elevator engineer’s room in the building.
the final scene of the film with jennifer jason leigh (who is just cute as a button in the role of the blind and deaf sister of the super-annoying amateur detective character) facing off against the killer is the highlight of the film. the scene actually reaches some level of effectiveness and originality as the killer moves the plates and knife around as the confused blind girl attempts to cut a piece of cake. unfortunately, the scene quickly falls apart leading to a rather ridiculous conclusion. the earlier parts of the film occasionally work such as a scene where the killer’s face is pressed against a shower door (creepy!) and the previously mentioned beheading, but the film gets bogged down in tedious dialogue exchanges about mud evidence and cuckoo clocks (don’t ask).
to me though, the oddest scene occurs towards the end of the film as stanley breaks his prank-caller m.o. and follows a stripper to her club in hopes of killing her. i understand this film was made in the early 80s and i am no expert on the history of exotic dancing, but some innate knowledge in my lone y chromosome tells me that at no point in history has a strip club owner decided that the dance shown below is what its patrons are clamoring for. (hover over video to see play controls)
I should like Eyes of a Stranger. The special effects, though relatively few in number, are handled by Tom Savini with his typical skill. Plus, the film features some solid performances by its actors, and the film’s overall direction and premise are mostly interesting, even if a bit shopworn. Lauren Tewes, of The Love Boat fame, plays Jane Harris, the film’s heroine. Jane is a spunky, cute, but melodramatic news reporter determined to save Tracy, her blind and mute sister, from Stanley Herbert, a dangerous psychopath who has been stalking and murdering women in their neighborhood. Jennifer Jason Leigh successfully portrays Tracy as an interesting and sympathetic victim. And Stanley, as played by John DiSanti, is both garden-variety geek and savage maniac, a combination that makes him all the more unsettling. The final confrontation between Tracy and Stanley is especially gripping. The film’s director, Ken Wiederhorn, obviously did his homework and studied how Hitchcock builds suspense by carefully choosing to let the audience know what the central characters do not. Stanley is often inches away from the oblivious Tracy, and he adds to the torment by snatching objects away from her just as she reaches for them. Likewise, the fact that much of the final sequence is filmed with natural sound and no soundtrack (another trick borrowed from Hitchcock) helps build the tension. The final sequence is conceptually interesting as well. Tracy regains her sight and blinds Stanley, thus reversing (if only momentarily) their roles as predator and prey. This is also borrowed from Hitchcock. But I can forgive that one, too. If you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the very best. I’ll say it again. I should like this film.
But I don’t. And it bothers me. Why doesn’t this film work? I spent a good deal of time thinking about this question as I watched it. For instance, how in the world could I end up not liking Jane? As I said before, she’s cute, she’s spunky, she’s got some interesting skeletons in her closet, she’s well intentioned, and she’s genuinely concerned for her sister. And I absolutely do not like her. Somehow, her determination and sense of tragedy come across as, well, childish and whiny. She has the incredibly annoying habit of interrupting her co-workers in the middle of their on-air reports in order to chastise them for not taking Stanley Herbert as seriously as she does. She pouts and she mopes her way through the film. It really frustrates me that the film makes me not like her at all.
The film also frustrates me in the way that it can’t seem to settle on just what sort of film it really wants to be. It’s a mishmash of several genres. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Tarantino has made a brilliant career out of creating hybrid films. I love the way From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is part action film, part buddy movie, and part vampire flick. Somehow that combination works. At the very least, it’s good, cheap fun. Eyes of a Stranger is part Maniac, part Rear Window, part Wait Until Dark, part Perry Mason, and part Nancy Drew Mysteries. This combination, I’ve come to realize, does not work.
For instance, nothing is gained by the inclusion of David, Jane’s lawyer boyfriend. His only role in the film is to periodically and austerely remind Jane that she has no real case against Stanley and that her evidence would never hold up in court. He’d have a point, I suppose, if there were an actual trial involved. But Jane’s simply trying to look out for her sister, not prepare a legal brief for the grand jury. Early on in the film, I could tolerate David because I assumed his objections were meant to remind the audience that Stanley might not actually be the killer, and we should therefore keep our wits about us and try to figure things out. But the film spoils that potential by revealing Stanley to be the killer in the first half of the film. This makes David’s constant pestering both tedious and unnecessary. One could argue, I suppose, that David is meant to heighten the film’s tension in that he is emblematic of the fact that nobody takes Jane seriously. Hitchcock does this brilliantly in Rear Window. Nobody believes that Jeff has seen an actual murder. But Hitchcock makes this all the more gripping and tense in the way that Jeff’s character constantly evolves and shifts between charming but nosy neighbor to disturbed and paranoid voyeur. Wiederhorn’s attempt at this kind of complexity fails because David and Jane are simply too one-dimensional and their characters are too often out of place in this film. David pretty much sums this up when he reminds Jane that “I can’t stop being an attorney. You can’t stop being a reporter.” It’s frustrating.
This kind of generic simplicity is also apparent when Jane turns into Nancy Drew. The film invests too much time away from the potentially gripping and far more complex story of Stanley and Tracy, and too much time instead on Jane’s Scooby-Doo sleuthing. In Rear Window, Jeff cracks the case, so to speak, through sheer luck and persistent, nearly pathological voyeurism. Jane cracks the case by snooping out such clues as the fact that Stanley has a bloody shirt, a cuckoo clock, and a pair of muddy shoes, the latter of which she manages to snatch away in her junior-detective style evidence bag to present to the still incredulous David.
I like Rear Window. I like Maniac. I even like Scooby-Doo. But they don’t work well together. Eyes of a Stranger is still worthwhile, if only for the final sequence. And it’s not exactly a bad film. It’s far more puzzling than that. It’s one of those rare films that makes you dislike it even when you really don’t want to.