The exploitation film business put up a good fight against the major studios for a long time, craftily working in the shadows and filling a niche in a speedy, hard-hitting manner that the large and cumbersome studio system couldn’t keep up with. However, the studios always paid attention the little guys and learned to do what they did on a bigger scale. That tendency kicked into overdrive in the ’70s with the films Jaws and Star Wars, both of which tackled b-movie genres but brought in levels of craft, talent and resources that exploitation studios couldn’t compete with.
By the 1990’s, exploitation guys were banished to the hinterlands of home video and the majors had completely absorbed their tactics. If you need proof, you need look no further than Eye For An Eye, a Paramount Studios that release that is essentially an exploitation flick made for mainstream audiences. It boasts classy talent – John Schlesinger directing and Sally Fields heading up a cast that also includes Ed Harris, Joe Mantegna and Kiefer Sutherland – but its trailer sells all these high-priced assets with pure exploitation tactics.
The first 30 seconds establish an upscale middle-class milieu that the audience can either relate or aspire to: Sally Field’s a professional woman with a loving hubby (Ed Harris) who is trying to get home from her work to aid her daughter in preparing a birthday party for her granddaughter. We also see superimposed titles like “An Average Family” and “A Special Day” that seem normal yet are quietly loaded with an ominous portent if you read them a different way. Also, the music under this imagery cuts against the grain with a somber atmosphere that gives us the first hint of trouble.
The next 30 seconds fulfills the ominous prophecy of that background music: Fields’ daughter is assaulted by a criminal (Sutherland) as she helplessly listens on the phone. She runs from her car and tries to get help, surrounded by indifferent people as the title “A Random Crime” is superimposed over her public implosion. Then we meet a cop (Mantegna) who tells her and the audience that they can’t hold onto the criminal due to lack of evidence – and a quick snippet of court proceeding reveals he gets off scot-free. He even mocks the stuttering of Fields’ daughter to her face on the way out the door.
A new 30 second block begins that reveals Eye For An Eye is essentially Death Wish for the suburban mom set. Fields asks her husband “Do you believe in the death penalty” then begins stalking Sutherland’s whereabouts as those ominous title cards warn “When Justice Fails… Where Will You Turn?” We see Field running up against rhetorical roadblocks supplied by the men she deals will (including Keith David and Philip Baker Hall) as she clandestinely obtains a revolver and learns how to use it. That representation of growing power leads her to lash out at all the unsupportive men pushing back on her desire for revenge when she shouts “You’re completely useless!” at Mantegna.
The trailer’s final 30 seconds are so loaded with material they deserved to be broken down into two 15 second blocks. The first of these reminds us that we’re watching the prestige version of this premise with title cards for Fields, Harris and Sutherland as the narrator also points out it’s a Schlesinger film. The plot material shown as this is going on lets us know that Field is too obsessed with revenge to let it go and Sutherland is aware she’s on his trail. He even introduces himself to her granddaughter at a park as he leeringly tells her “You’re pretty.”
The final 15 seconds lay on the theatrics for a grand finale. Fields is warned by a female friend that she could end up in prison but the heroine is determined to strike back against a justice system that can’t protect her or punish her foe. Meanwhile, Sutherland indicates he’s not a passive target and is fully willing to bring the fight to her doorstep. A pulse-pounding rhythm is established by individual title cards for each word in the film’s title, pacing each burst of tense visuals and dialogue. As it comes to a close, Sutherland taunts Fields by asking “What are ya gonna do, shoot me?” The cinematic answer is provided by an echoing gunshot sound effect and a title card that says “Let The Punishment Fit The Crime.”
The end result shows how thoroughly the studios had absorbed exploitation tactics. It’s an all-audiences trailer so there’s no explicit brutality… but it artfully uses the language of visual juxtaposition and the punchiest elements of the story’s dialogue to sell the film’s pro-vengeance attitude and the dangers represented by its sleazy everyman version of a psychopathic pervert killer, who also doubles as an agent of moral decay for a faltering society. That’s a lot to cover in two minutes but it does so in a way that makes it look effortless, offering a perfect mixture of studio polish and exploitation hard-sell tactics.
To read Schlockmania’s film review for Eye For An Eye, click here.