Twisted Terror: Eyes of a Stranger Review

The ‘phone psycho’ sub-genre of the slasher film was popular around the turn of the decade and runs parallel to the ‘teenagers in peril’ movies such as Friday The 13th and Prom Night. Although the true beginning is probably Bob Clark’s Black Christmas from 1975, the format became popular with John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me and Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls. The rule of the sub-genre are clear – single women, alone in an apartment, will be menaced on the phone by a heavy-breathing psychopath who will then kill them. It’s a neat way of extending the menace beyond the simple stalking scenes of other slasher films and bringing it right into the home. Sometimes, the killer will be punishing the women for their perceived sluttish behaviour in sleeping with men; the films frequently link sex and death in a manner which has become a genre stereotype. The films are always poised on a knife-edge between misogyny and a spurious kind of women’s lib – the terror of the women is exploited to the maximum degree, and so are their bodies, but the eventual triumph of one woman against the psychopath is meant to be some kind of sop to the feminists (few of whom were ever fooled).

Ken Wiederhorn’s Eyes of a Stranger arrived in 1981, right at the end of the cycle, and one gets the distinct impression of desperation of the part of cynical filmmakers who throw in anything for a cheap scare. Virtually everything in the film is second-hand, from the head in the fish-tank (He Knows You’re Alone, The Silent Partner) to the disabled-woman-in-peril finale (Wait Until Dark, Lady In A Cage, Blind Terror). The most interesting thing about the film is the way in which it hypes up every one of its borrowed elements as if to try and be as harrowing as possible – not realising that the only time that it is ever effective is when it quietly builds up a measure of suspense.

I don’t want to give the impression that Eyes of a Stranger is a particularly bad film. It’s actually quite professional in the way it’s put together and is certainly the only time that director Ken Wiederhorn produced anything to equal to sheer verve of his debut, Shock Waves - one of those cult movies which anyone with the vaguest interest in horror should seek out. His building of tension is often quite superb, particularly during the lengthy first murder scene, and the climax tightens the screws very nicely, right up until the ludicrous conclusion which suggests that being nearly raped and murdered has some kind of miraculous healing power. Not that this tasteless nonsense is original – something similar happens in Robert Siodmak’s excellent The Spiral Staircase, released back in 1945. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the deaf/mute/blind victim does her best but doesn’t make much of an impression.

The problem is that there’s a cloddishness here, largely in the handling of the violence which is grotesque and exploitative, suggesting a bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation flick rather than the stylish thriller which the film, at its best, edges towards being. The bloodletting, courtesy of Tom Savini, is ridiculously over-the-top with the treatment of women being particularly exploitative – either they are required to die half-naked in a demeaning posture or their death agonies are lingered on for no good reason other than to excite the worst instincts of the audience. The film consequently leaves a nasty aftertaste, one which is more reminiscent of Fulci’s The New York Ripper than any of the other American slasher films. Given that there’s no whodunnit element to the film – the identity of the killer is obvious from the first murder despite a desultory attempt at disguise – then it simply resolves itself into a sequence of set-piece murders with a tedious plot connecting them together.

Eyes of a Stranger isn’t as downright objectionable as Don’t Answer The Phone, largely because it doesn’t attempt to employ any amateur psychology to explain the killer’s actions, and it’s a better piece of filmmaking than He Knows You’re Alone. But despite some effective suspense sequences, it hovers uncomfortably between being unpleasantly exploitative and unintentionally funny. The killer’s phone calls are made in a ridiculous sing-song voice which is almost as amusing as the duck noises in New York Ripper, while Lauren Tewes models a wardrobe of 1980s chic which is by far the most disturbing thing in the film.

The Disc

Not much to say about this Warner DVD release of the film apart from that it’s entirely competent and equally unexciting. The movie is presented uncut – the ‘R’ rating on the box is a misnomer –in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a strong transfer with excellent colours, plenty of detail and no serious problems with artefacts or excessive grain. There’s a slightly flat look which is characteristic of the cheap, TV-movie appearance of the original film. The mono soundtrack is crisp and clear throughout.

There are no extras on this disc. Nor is there a scene selection menu which strikes me as being penny-pinching to a fault.

Subtitles are provided in English, French and Spanish. There are a generous 25 chapter stops.

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