If you believe IMDb trivia, Eyes of a Stranger (1981) was originally meant to be a more straightforward thriller; however, somewhere along the way, the producers decided to capitalize on the slasher craze and added some gore. In fact, they added so much gore that it had to be trimmed to receive an R rating. Thanks to this, and to Tom Savini, the movie offers some quality effects that actually surpass those in most movies residing a tier or two below the top level of slasher films.
This is just one among several interesting points about the movie that don’t quite add up to a completely interesting movie. For example, in an early scene, Debbie (Gwen Lewis), a soon-to-be victim of a serial rapist/killer is watching television in her apartment. Her boyfriend, Jeff (Timothy Hawkins) joins her and sits on the couch, shortly before the killer lops off his head and tosses it in the fish tank. The movie they’re watching is Shock Waves (1977), the first time feature of Ken Wiederhorn, the director of… Eyes of a Stranger.
It stars Lauren Tewes, for whom, until the mid-90s when she appeared in two Gregg Araka movies (The Doom Generation and Nowhere), this was her only feature film. She’s better known as Julie, the cruise director on TV’s The Love Boat from 1977-1984. She was fired from the hit show in 1984 due to drug addiction. Her acting strengths lie within the small screen, that’s for sure; not the big screen. She’s weak in Eyes of a Stranger, even for a slasher wannabe.
Even more interesting is that this is the big screen debut of Jennifer Jason Leigh. She started her career with a handful of television guest appearances, but went much further than Tewes in movies, including star appearances in some close-to-genre films like Single White Female (1992) and Dolores Claiborne (1995.) Here, she plays Tracy Harris, younger sister of TV newscaster, Jane (Tewes.) She’s blind and becomes a potential victim for the killer when he learns Jane suspects he’s responsible for a series of local murders.
He also lives directly across from the women, in an adjacent building that gives him direct line of sight into their apartment. Eyes of a Stranger could have made for a reverse spin on Rear Window, but doesn’t have such lofty aspirations. Nevertheless, it does create a suspenseful finale as Jane, sneaking around inside the killer’s apartment, sees her sister being attacked across the way. With earlier scenes of her journey back and forth through the underground parking lot,, we know it’s going to take a long time for her to get to her.
No spoilers; we know early the identity of the killer. It’s not a mystery the movie is interested in solving. Jane’s suspicions of Stanley Herbert (John DiSanti) are strictly coincidental, built on a wafer thin foundation. One night in the parking garage, she sees him get out of his car wearing a stained shirt. That’s all it takes to convince her he’s a bad guy. The story takes place in Key Biscayne, Florida, but it’s close enough to Miami that you’d think the candidate pool for serial killer might be larger.
At least Jane’s boyfriend, David (Peter DuPre) tells her she has only circumstantial evidence against Herbert. (He’s a criminal attorney, by the way.) There’s a lot of subplot about those two and her reluctance to move to the next stage in their relationship because of the guilt she feels for the accident that made her sister blind. I admire the effort, but it doesn’t work, for no other reason I can pinpoint other than Tewes just can’t support the extra drama. I have no doubt that with a better lead, Eyes of a Stranger would have been much better.
In his terrific resource guide, The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies, Peter Normanton disagrees, even comparing the film to Hitchcock…
Here, Wiederhorn managed to create a suspense-charged movie very much in the Hitchcock vein containing key elements of the brutality and voyeuristic sleaze that had already enticed the growing army of fans for this kill-crazed cinematic experience.
In The Slasher Movie Book, A.J.Kerswell is a liittle more down-to-earth with his opinions...
The film shuffles from one suspense-free scene to another, bathed in the pastel nihilistic look - the result of the blistering Miami sunshine, cheap film stock and a bad video transfer - that typified many early 1980s genre flicks.
He also notes that “it made barely $1 million at the box office.”
Finally, in one more behind the scenes fact that puzzles me, Eyes of a Stranger was written by Ron Kurz, who wrote Friday the 13th Part 2 during the same year, effectively creating the Jason Voorhees character we all know and love. With the exception of one more movie two years later (Off the Wall), he has no other motion picture credits. With the auspicious beginning of a monster (pun intended) franchise and another thriller, I’m surprised he didn’t work on any other horror movies. Perhaps he was living off the paychecks of his many “characters created by” credits.
Written by Ron Kurz
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn
Starring Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti
RT 84 min.
Released on March 27, 1981
Home Video Warner Home Video (DVD)
The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies
2012, United States, Running Press Book Publishers
1984, UK, New Holland Publishers Ltd.