After John Carpenter’s Halloween was a hit at the box office, slasher films became Hollywood’s horror genre of choice. Many long running series with bizarre killers like Jason, Freddy and Chuckie would come along throughout the 80’s. However, there were a few films that featured killers who were just normal looking people…no hockey masks or razor-sharp gloves. One such film was 1981’s Eyes of a Stranger.
Our story takes place in Miami, where a killer is sexually assaulting and murdering young women. As the film begins, a nature photographer finds a body in the water as he’s out taking pictures. Local news anchor Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes…Julie from The Love Boat) reports on the story and pleads with women to be on their guard. The killer often engages in obscene phone calls with his victims before he attacks. Still, right after Jane’s report a waitress is killed in her apartment, as is her boyfriend who is decapitated with a meat cleaver. The head winds up in the fish tank…making this the second film I’ve seen this month where that happens (the first was He Knows You’re Alone).
Jane is obsessed with the story and with finding the killer. Her attorney boyfriend David (Peter DuPre) thinks she should leave things to the cops. He’d rather she just decide to move in with him, but she refuses because she takes care of her blind and deaf sister Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Apparently, Tracy has been unable to see or hear since she was abducted as a child. Nothing is wrong with her eyes and ears…she just seems to be blocking. So basically she’s like Tommy.
As more murders happen, Jane soon begins to suspect that a man named Stanley Herbert (John DiSanti), living in the same high-rise apartment complex she lives in, may be the murderer. Jane even swipes a key from the building super and sneaks into Herbert’s apartment to investigate. Soon, she decides to give Herbert a taste of his own medicine by calling him and claiming to know what he’s doing. This backfires, though, when Herbert recognizes Jane’s voice from television and sets out to kill Tracy.
In recent years, I’ve begun to understand the appeal of slasher films a bit more. I admit, I was never someone who watched them during my youth. While they feature terrible things happening to people, there is an element of fun to them…especially the more outrageous the bad guys are. In this film, however, our killer has no gimmick. He’s just a sicko…raping and murdering women. So that alone makes it hard to have “fun” with the film. However, there is some solid suspense here. Yes, the film seems to be borrowing elements from the likes of When a Stranger Calls and even Rear Window, but it does have some good scare moments.
Lauren Tewes makes for a solid leading lady and brings some interesting things to her character. At first she seems like she’s going to be your standard plucky reporter sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, but she goes through an interesting change. Once she’s on to the killer and decides to call him, Tewes brings subtle hints to her performance that suggest she is enjoying tormenting the killer over the phone, just like he enjoys tormenting his victims. In fact, it even seems like she is becoming aroused by this, dragging on a cigarette and gasping in ecstasy after hanging up. It adds an interesting element to her character that I wish had been explored a bit more.
I’ve also got to give a lot of credit to Jennifer Jason Leigh who is extremely convincing as a deaf and blind girl. She’s underused in the early parts of the film, but the big climax is all about her. It’s a tense sequence, with the killer toying with her…standing just out of her reach. With a lesser actress the scene could’ve become unintentionally funny, but Jennifer Jason Leigh really makes it work.
There are a number of grisly moments, courtesy of makeup artist Tom Savini, that horror fans will appreciate. It’s not a gore fest, though…the suspense element ultimately wins out. The average viewer, though, may find the disturbing nature of the killer makes the film a bit more difficult to take than other early 80’s slashers.