Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sorry, Your Party is Dead: Jennifer Jason Leigh in Eyes of a Stranger (1980)

Mostly remembered for its terrific Tom Savini makeup effects as well as being the debut feature for the tremendous Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ken Wiederhorn’s The Eyes of a Stranger is at times as generic as its title, but it’s both stylish and entertaining and Slasher enthusiasts should absolutely seek it out.
Wiederhorn has mainly worked in television for the past couple of decades, but genre fans will mostly know him for his strangely effective 1977 debut as a writer and director, Shock Waves, as well as for 1988’s Return of the Living Dead Part II. With Eyes of a Stranger, his one entry in the early eighties Slasher craze, Wiederhorn shows himself as a competent and occasionally stylish director well aware of what genre fans would want from a stalk and slash film in 1980. He also offers up a sly and sometimes surprising tongue-in-cheek attitude in the film as well, as his own Shock Waves is playing on one of the victim’s televisions at one point and one of Savini’s most legendary films, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, also comes into play during the film.

Scripted by Friday the 13th Veteran Ron Kurtz, with assistance from an Eric L. Bloom, Eyes of a Stranger details a string of bloody murders and rapes by a serial killer, whose hook is a prank phone call before his attacks, and a local female news-anchor who becomes obsessed with stopping him. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here and Eyes of a Stranger can rightly be looked upon as a hodgepodge of earlier and mostly better Slasher films, but it moves along at a brisk pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome in its 90 minute running time.

Starring television favorites Lauren Tewes as daring anchorwoman Jane Harris, John DiSanti as the sleazy killer Stanley and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Jane’s blind sister Tracy, Eyes of a Stranger works best when Wiederhorn pulls out all the exploitation stops, as he is unable to build any true tension with the film. Bloody and filled with no small amount of nudity from its attractive cast of victims, Eyes of a Stranger features pretty much every element that Slasher critics love to pick on and, of course, it’s those same elements that has made it a minor fan favorite over the years.

Legendary (yes, I have no problem calling her that) Jennifer Jason Leigh not surprisingly provides the film’s best performance. Just eighteen when she filmed Eyes of a Stranger, Leigh is already showing traces of the qualities that would go on to make her one of the most fearless and consistently brilliant actors of her generation. Eyes of a Stranger might be a minor and not totally successful film but it will always have a place in film history as the big screen introduction to Leigh, who had only appeared in television up to this point.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s introduction aside, the best thing about Eyes of a Stranger are the bloody make-up effects by Tom Savini. Produced by the company that handled the original Friday the 13th, that Savini had made so memorable, Eyes of a Stranger benefits at every turn due to his involvement. While there is nothing here as groundbreaking or as shocking as Savini’s work on films of the same era like Maniac, The Prowler and The Burning, the effects for Eyes of a Stranger are instantly recognizable and never less than very effective.
Eyes of a Stranger, like many of its Slasher counterparts from the era, was heavily censored upon its release. Missing well over five-minutes of Savin’s unsettling effects, Wiederhorn’s film was extremely neutered for its big-screen run. Once only available in a complete version courtesy of an Australia VHS copy, the current Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers (part of their Twisted Terror Collection) is thankfully uncut with a fairly solid widescreen transfer that shows off the film's at times very striking cinematography. No extras are offered, but having the cut footage reinstated is honestly extra enough. While far from being one of the great early eighties Slasher film, Eyes of a Stranger is an enjoyably sleazy offering that hits more often than it misses. I dig it.


Ned Merrill said...

Caught this one about a year and half ago via the WHV DVD and was quite satisfied with it. Think you hit it on the head, Jeremy. JJL is legendary and she's superb here. LOVE BOAT veteran Lauren Tewes is also very good as the heroine and John DiSanti is suitably creepy and repugnant as the killer. Dig the South Florida early '80s locale as well.

I remember reading, perhaps in Video Watchdog, that director Ken Wiederhorn was originally set to direct BODY DOUBLE with De Palma writing/producing , but De Palma decided to take the project over when something else fell through.

J.D. said...

I have the Twisted Terror Collection but y'know I've never watched this disc yet, esp. odd considering my love of JJL's films. I must watch this film soon!

Fantastic write-up, as always, Jeremy and nice collection of stills. I'll have to check this film out now.

Will Errickson said...

Have you ever seen Leigh in HEART OF MIDNIGHT from '88 or '89? I don't think I've seen but I've heard it's supposed to be one of her best roles.

Bunched Undies said...

Well written and nicely presented Jeremy. Lauren Tewes...have not heard that name in forever. Love the old style teleprompter too.

Bla said...

Rockin' blog. :)

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks guys,
I had a fun time putting this one together so I appreciate the comments. I'm hoping to put something together for Jennifer soon on here as well, as I have been thinking about her films a lot again lately.

Ned: That's a cool story about BODY DOUBLE. I don't think I had heard that before.

JD: Let me know what you think after you watch it.

Will: I have seen that but I have to admit that it was almost twenty years ago and I am a bit foggy on it. I need to give it another go.

Bunched: Thanks and I had to include a couple of shots of that awesome news setup.

Bla: Thanks!