Genre fans, step this way…
This suspense slasher completely went beyond my radar when I was younger – I don’t recall it ever being screened on television, never noticed the video release and a DVD release here in the UK is non-existent as far as I’m aware. The film is one of a wave of post-Halloween slashers that is considerably high on the gore factor, putting it firmly in the same league as stuff like Friday the 13th and Maniac (Tom Savini’s gruesome make-up effects link these three also), but there’s also hints of proto-slasher Black Christmas, as well as Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The film’s gore led to it being slashed by the MPAA in the US, and even this edited version was too much for the BBFC in the UK, who snipped a further minute and a half of footage, most likely the sexual violence, as that sort of thing has always been a major issue with our censors. I’ve discussed sexual violence in my Death Wish II review a while back, and while this film isn’t anywhere near as repulsive as Michael Winner’s movie, there’s definitely a shamelessly exploitative mixture of titillating nudity followed by sexual violence here, which to be honest, was par for the course in early eighties slasher fodder.
So yeah, there’s some problematic exploitation here and there (especially at the end), but Eyes of a Stranger is a pretty decent thriller, which came as a shock as the bloke who directed it would later make Return of the Living Dead Part II, which is, as any sane person will testify, one of the worst films ever made. True, plenty of it is made of long voyeuristic stalking scenes/grisly murders, the likes of which we’ve seen a million times before, but director Ken Wiederhorn displays a sure handling of suspense, some of it quite nail-biting. A series of sex murders are taking place and reporter Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes) believes that the man living in the apartment block opposite her may be the murderer, and she’s determined to expose and stop him. Since she’s not confined to a wheelchair like James Stewart was in Rear Window, she actually sneaks into the guy’s flat herself, and though you wonder why she’s taking her leisurely time investigating his home when he could be coming back any second, it doesn’t stop the sequence being agonisingly tense. Jane also has a younger sister who lives with her, Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in her first film), who was abducted when she was a child and survived, but became catatonically deaf and blind as a result, which explains Jane’s personal motive for stopping the killer. This leads to a cracking finale where the killer walks freely around the unsuspecting Tracy, cruelly doing things like moving her plate of food away from her while she’s making dinner, just to mess with her mind before he goes in for the attack.
The gore is pretty strong for a 1980 film, especially one given big-studio distribution (Warner Bros. aren’t credited at the start, but they did release it), and Savini has some fun lopping off some bloke’s head and dumping it in a fish tank. Most of the time though the violence errs closer to disturbing than fun, which is appropriate given the nature of the killings. The blend of nudity and violence can leave a nasty taste in the mouth at times though – you wonder what the director’s intentions were during these moments. Still, the film’s too well made to qualify as overtly grotesque – the tension is at times very well handled, and the swift running time makes for a lean thrill-ride. There’s a great sequence where, once Jane is sure of the killer’s identity and obtains his number, turns the tables and starts harassing him over the phone. The killer himself, eerily underplayed by John Di Santi, even resembles Raymond Burr’s killer from Rear Window, coincidentally enough. He also looks like a slightly leaner John Goodman, to the point where I double-checked the credits!
One last thing though; if the killer has been making his obscene phone calls from home (as the revelation of the location of the music-box melody that accompanies them reveals), then how on Earth did he manage to get to his victims so quickly afterwards?