The massive glut of slasher films unleashed during the first half of the 1980’s tend to linger in the collective unconscious of horror fans. Everybody into this era of the genre has favorites, non-favorites and oddball obsessions that they take a shine to for their own personal reasons. Eyes Of A Stranger is a good example of the latter category. It’s not quite a classic but it has enough quirks and inspired touches to stick in the memory.
For example, the setup offers some interesting twists on the boilerplate slasher setup. As expected, there’s a killer (John DiSanti) who directs his rage into sexually assaulting and killing women. This time, it happens in Miami instead of a summer camp. Reports of his crimes are a fixture of local news and a particular obsession for Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes of The Love Boat). She has her reasons: her younger sister Tracy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was kidnapped and assaulted as a little girl, causing a psychological block that has left her deaf, dumb and blind. Jane soon discovers the killer lives in her dual-tower apartment building. She starts to call him anonymously and the killer takes it very personally…
In key respects, Eyes Of A Stranger is a conventional slasher: there are plenty of cat & mouse sequences complete with gratuitous nudity and P.O.V. camerawork, a few gory slashings (including a severed-head gag), a scene in a strip club with a really wild dancer and lots of ladies in danger. On the other hand, it has mainstream thriller ambitions inspired by better-known films, like a third act that cribs heavily from Rear Window and Wait Until Dark. This odd duality came from the film being begun as a straighforward thriller, only for the producers to decide to make it a slasher mid-production and bring on FX whiz Tom Savini to beef up the gore content. The shifts between these extremes is often jarring but that adds to the excitement of watching it – you never quite know if you’re going to get grindhouse thrills or Hitchcockian suspense around the next corner.
The script isn’t particularly sharp in terms of dialogue or characterization but it offsets these flaws with the aforementioned unique plot hooks and a clean, direct style of storytelling. Lauren Tewes overdoes the wide-eyed emotionalism in some scenes but otherwise makes a competent lead. Better yet, she is backed up by fantastic performances from DiSanti and Leigh. The killer is written as a repressed schlub who struggles to keep his impulses under wraps instead of a ranting loony and DiSanti gives the character a nicely underplayed performance that simmers with nervous tension. Leigh is similarly subtle in her depiction of her character’s handicaps and does some wonderfully expressive non-verbal acting when endangered. The third act is practically a two-hander for this duo and they give it their all.
However, the best part of Eyes Of A Stranger is Ken Weiderhorn’s direction. Even with the producer’s interference, he manages to create a nice balance of shocks and suspense as he creates and sustains a genuinely unnerving, dread-filled atmosphere from start to finish. His key tools are a shivery musical score from Richard Einhorn that blends strings and electronics to ominous effect and moody, skillful cinematography by Mini Rojas. Rojas in particular deserves special praise for his work: each setpiece is lit and shot with great care, juxtaposing shadows with bold splashes of primary color to often dazzling effect. Weiderhorn utilizes the skills of his crew with great precision, creating a film that is far more craft-intensive than you would expect from a slasher-flick quickie.
Thus, horror historians are likely to find Eyes Of A Stranger to be a solid choice when they are in a nostalgic mood for early-1980’s chills. It doesn’t reinvent the subgenre but the results create a spooky mood that sticks with you afterwards.