I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Eyes of a Stranger

tn_eyesofastrangerI found EYES OF A STRANGER (1981) with the mystery and suspense movies at the video store. That got me thinking – how exactly do you draw the line between a thriller and a slasher movie? Is it because this guy’s a rapist, not just a killer? Is it because he’s not supernatural, deformed, masked or a redneck? You could say that about MANIAC too, but I think we all agree that’s a horror movie. Both have effects by Tom Savini, too. But MANIAC is way gorier, and the killer gets way more screen time. He’s the central character. Here the killer is often sneaking around just off camera, unseen, keeping us on a thread until he suddenly attacks, like Michael Myers. So if you’re watching a movie where there’s a killer like Michael Myers, but without a mask and not supernatural, that’s suspense. Except SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE. It’s horror if it has ‘massacre’ in the title I believe is the rule.

Ah, shit. I don’t know how it works. But EYES OF A STRANGER is a good thriller about a slasher. Miami is being terrorized by a rapist-killer who stalks women, makes obscene phone calls, then attacks them. Jane Harris (Lauren Tewes from LOVE BOAT) is a news anchor so worried about this that she keeps ad-libbing about safety and catching the killer, making her co-anchor look uncomfortable like Mike Meyers standing next to Kanye West, and making for an awkward segue to the wacky-costume-wearing weatherman. The real reason she takes it personally is because her younger sister (introducing Jennifer Jason Leigh) was once kidnapped, and though she escaped she was so traumatized it made her blind, deaf and mute. Jane blames herself and is paranoid about it happening to her sister again.

Eyes of a StrangerIt could happen – there have been bigger coincidences. For example, if Jane’s hunch is right then one of her neighbors is the killer. She noticed him doing something odd so she started spying on him. Next thing you know she’s harassing him the way he (allegedly) harasses his victims before he attacks them. EYES OF A STRANGER is a good title because first we’re with a woman, scared of the eyes that seem to be out there spying on her, knowing things about her. Then all the sudden we become the stranger, intruding on this guy in his apartment trying to relax after work, suspicious of him but not really knowing if he’s the guy or not. Man, we’re gonna feel like assholes if he’s not.

The highrise setting reminded me of John Carpenter’s SOMEONE IS WATCHING ME! (which was a couple years earlier, so this might be a ripoff). The phone calls reminded me of BLACK CHRISTMAS. The stalking scenes reminded me a little of HALLOWEEN. But it comes together into a flavor of its own. Even without being graphic it has a very seedy, sleazy kind of feel. The killer just looks like a normal guy, not a monster, and somehow that makes him even more appalling. If he had an eyeball hanging out or was wearing human skins you’d think okay, something went wrong with this guy a long time ago, out in some woods somwewhere, it’s not surprising that he’s on a rampage. But when it’s a normal guy wearing his work suit you think shit man, you know how to put on a tie. You should be a responsible member of society. Life has afforded you luxuries and opportunities that Jason and Leatherface never had.

I was rooting so hard against this prick when he went after Jennifer Jason Leigh. Remember, she’s blind, and the guy toys with her, moving objects around so she can’t find them, getting off on it. What a fuckin creep. Too bad he doesn’t bite it harder. This would’ve been a good one for a stabbed-in-both-eyes, hurled-through-the-sliding-glass-door, bounced-off-three-balconies-and-run-over-by-two-cars-and-a-city-bus-before-being-shot-by-a-line-of-cops type of death. But oh well, even without that it’s a clever and solid movie. Also there’s a part with a severed head in a fish tank.

One of the writers is Ron Kurz, who in the same year wrote FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, one of my favorite straightahead slasher movies. So let that be entered into evidence. The director, Ken Wiederhorn, also did SHOCK WAVES and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II (not to mention MEATBALLS PART II and KING FRAT). In ’93 he did another suspense thriller called A HOUSE IN THE HILLS, but I don’t think my video store has it, so let me know if it’s worth looking for.

special thanks to Roachboy for suggesting this one (and anyone else who might’ve mentioned it and I forgot)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, October 9th, 2009 at 5:14 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “Eyes of a Stranger”

  1. I have seen Return of the Living Dead Part II and also Meatballs Part II, without expecting much and been horribly disappointed. I assume everyone else has had the same experience.

    I guess that Mr. Wiederhorn could be just a one-genre director or maybe he never got another good script, but I am seriously hesitant about watching this on account of ROTLD2.

  2. Shit, I just got this in from Netflix last night. Synchronicity.

    Oh, or wait, we picked this one because people recommended it to you on your site. Yeah, that’s probably it, not the synchronicity thing.

  3. Yay, thanks for viewing my recommendation! Love this movie. If you liked it, you should check out Wiederhorn’s debut flick SHOCK WAVES. Which is about underwater zombie nazies and is great.
    I also like RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 – it’s a bit childish, but still a great movie-making. By the way, the last 10 minutes of ROTLD 3 is a very pleasant surprise for every horror-gore fan (no spoilers here!).

  4. The difference between a slasher and a thriller is very difficult to explain. I for myself go so far and say that whenever the killer has no supernatural element (like when he is just a normal human being), it’s a thriller. Yes, I know, that would take films like “Halloween” not just out of the slasher-, but also out of the horror genre, but in my opinion that’s okay.
    Y’know, “horror” is for me strictly supernatural and since “slasher” is a subgenre of horror, it has to be supernatural too. Otherwise we could label “CSI”, which has often some gruesome “creative” kills and from time to time serial killers, as horror too. And to be honest, a movie about a man with a knife isn’t scary to me. It can be suspenseful, but so is “Die Hard” and I doubt that anybody would label this one a horror movie, just because of its suspense level. (Although I’m sure that John McClane killed so many bad guys in his life, that he is in a “I Am Legend”-esque twist something like the boogieman for the bad guys and all the terrorists in the world tell their little terrorist kids: “If you don’t eat your vegetables, John McClane will jump out of an air vent and shoot you!”)

  5. CJ Holden: I like your definition, but I thought the ending of HALLOWEEN establishes a supernatural element, thus putting it squarely into your definition of slasher/horror. Maybe I’m misremembering.

  6. Just watched THE BURROWERS! Pretty good flick, DEADWOOD (or maybe THE PROPOSITION) meets TREMORS, very realistic western setting and characters. Think I’m gonna go with J.T. Petty’s S&MAN next. What are you guys watching?

  7. Making my way over to Netflix now, except I think the phone calls in the movie might scare me. Yeah, I’m a weenie, but you don’t know how much sleep I lost after those calls in BLACK CHRISTMAS.

    Last night, I watched SATAN’S BLOOD, which was total horror porn. In a disturbingly fun way. And I’m not going to admit this to anyone outside of Internet land, either.

  8. I can’t get behind this supernatural definition of horror. Does that mean THE THING isn’t a horror movie because it’s an alien and not a ghost? It’s just a sci-fi movie that happens to be scary as hell? Or that the early FRIDAY THE 13th movies are thrillers because there’s not a supernatural element, but then once Jason comes back from the dead they are horror movies?

    It’s a tough distinction, I’ll give you that. Thriller is an elusive genre… seems to me that 90% of the time it’s a label given to either horror movies with a big budget and well-known cast as a way making the movie seem more reputable (i.e. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, or that marketing bullshit they pulled with 28 DAYS LATER), or to action movies that are lighter on explosions and heavier on suspense. Still, the term is fluid, and maybe ultimately a meaningless distinction.

  9. Doesn’t aliens count as supernatural? If not, blame it on the language barrier. All I mean is the killer can be an undead, an alien, a piece of furniture (as long as it’s alive or at least not controlled by a normal human being), a mutant, what the fuck ever and it counts to me as horror. But as soon as the killer is a normal human being (of course “normal” doesn’t mean he has to be sane) it’s a thriller.

    The Thing = Horror, because it’s about an alien life form
    Friday The 13th 1 = Thriller, because it’s Jason’s mom
    Friday the 13th sequels = Horror, because it’s Jason (To be fair, I don’t know all sequels and therefore got no idea when you can be sure that he is undead.)
    Halloween = Thriller, even if he disappears in the end (Because technically he just gets up and away from the lawn)
    Saw = Thriller, because the killer is alive/planned it when he was alive (I stopped watching after part 3, but from what I’ve heard Jigsaw didn’t come back as ghost, right?)
    Nightmare on Elm Street = Horror, because the killer is an undead man
    Predator = Horror (though more focussed on action than on suspense)

    And so on. I thing you got my concept. I don’t demand that you follow it, but for me it works fine.

  10. PREDATOR is horror? Damn, dude, you have one interesting classification system.

    Does that make E.T. a horror movie because it’s about an alien? Just kidding.

    Another hypothetical for your system: DAWN OF THE DEAD and other zombie movies seem like they should obviously be horror, the undead are supernatural beings, But what about something like 28 DAYS LATER or PLANET TERROR, where it’s caused by a virus and the zombies are not undead but infected people? Does that make them thrillers?

  11. That’s an interesting question Dan, but I think the infected don’t really count as “normal human beings” anymore. We can say that they are mutants. ;) (Hey, I never said my system is perfect. It just keeps most slashers away from the horror genre. :D)

  12. I think if it’s scary, it’s horror. Thrillers are where it’s suspenseful but not scary. To put it in Hitchcockian terms, think about North By Northwest vs. Psycho. Some movies walk the line, like Seven or Silence of the Lambs, but I tend to be generous with my horror definitions. I think a lot of times filmmakers consider the term “horror” to mean “crappy” so they try to distance themselves from it. I say fuck that. You made a movie where a cannibal slices a guy’s face off and wears it, Jonathan Demme. When Tobe Hooper did it, he wasn’t afraid to call it what it was. Of course, he didn’t win any Oscars for it, so maybe Demme has a point.

  13. I kinda agree with Mr. M, I think… I would say horror goes the extra step beyond just being tense to something disturbing. It’s not just concerned with keeping you in suspense, at the edge of your seat…. horror wants to get inside your head and lurk there. Hence, supernatural stuff is going to be more likely to do that, but particularly bizzare or unsettling human behavior as well. Its the difference between suspense and fear. Cop movies or war movies have suspense, because you fear for the safety of the characters. Horror movies tend to go beyond our fear of pain or death, into a more metaphysical area. We’re not scared of the sick folks in 28 DAYS LATER because we fear their bites, but because the very idea of losing your humanity is more weird and macabre than mere death.

    That having been said, that probably means that everyone has their own definition of these things. I took a course once in college on film genres, thinking it would be a lark, but it actually it was a frustrating mess of semantics. Can LAST OF THE MOHICANS count as a western if it has all the trapping of a Western, even if it’s not set in the west? Can HIGH NOON be a western if we see Gary Cooper cry? Why is PSYCHO a horror film but SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a thriller. Is it OK to put the VHS of FARGO in the “Thriller” section of the video store, just because it says “Thriller” on the side of the box? How can anyone argue that LOST HIGHWAY is anything but a horror film?

    Honestly, who cares? I don’t think its all that important for us to artificially construct arbitrary boundaries between genres. I prefer to think of things on a spectrum, rather than separate poles.

  14. The difference between suspense and horror:

    Suspense: “Oh shit, I wonder what’s gonna happen next.”

    Horror: “Oh shit, I hope that never happens to me.”

  15. Yeah, but I’m sure that every CSI viewer hopes that what they see there never happens to them, too.

  16. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen any of those shows with the letters. Does The A-Team count?

  17. The A-Team ALWAYS counts!

  18. The most satisfying definition I’ve seen of thillers as a genre refers more to structure than anything else. Under this definition, a thriller is a mystery (lots of information is withheld at the beginning and is slowly revealed, often as the protagonist learns it) that starts with an event of some sort (usually a crime) intended to set up something bigger that’s going to happen later. SEVEN has its gluttony murder, MANHUNTER / RED DRAGON has its first two murders of similar families, REAR WINDOW has those vague clues that make Jimmy Stewart feel like something is wrong; the key is that it’s something weird that has the clues necessary to understand the stuff that’s going to follow.

    If that’s the definition of a thriller, then many horror movies (which I’m going to suggest are movies that use some aspect of human misery or “evil” in a threatening manner; we all know that people get murdered, but a horror movie lets you get to know the person that’s going to get killed and often suggests that you could easily be in a similar circumstance) are thrillers and many are not. If the campers get to Crystal Lake, settle in, and then notice that someone’s missing after a night, leading them to investigate and see evidence of Jason, then it’s a thriller; if they get there and Jason beheads the bus driver before anyone has even gotten off, it isn’t.

    Maybe that wasn’t a great analogy.

    The interesting thing, I guess, is that if this is the case, one can think up all sorts of horrifying situations and stories that aren’t really suspenseful. Maybe that would be getting too far from the roots of the genre to count, though.

  19. caruso_stalker217

    October 11th, 2009 at 12:04 am

    I don’t think “thriller” and “horror” can be adequately compared. A horror film doesn’t necessarily have to be suspenseful. A thriller doesn’t necessarily have to be scary. It’s primary objective is to thrill. TOTAL RECALL is a sci-fi action thriller that is gory as hell but isn’t a horror film. BASIC INSTINCT is an erotic thriller with a villain who stabs people to death, but it isn’t a slasher film. SEVEN is a crime thriller about a guy who tortures people, but you wouldn’t lump it in with HOSTEL.

    Anyway, I don’t think the labels really mean anything. DIE HARD is suspenseful. So is CARRIE. One is a horror film. Both are thrillers. Both have nudity. CARRIE has more nudity. CARRIE wins.

    What were we talking about?

  20. House in the Hills is a fun little flick. It’s one of those movies that is slightly better than it has to be and you appreciate it for putting forth the effort. Plus, Michael Madsen was coming off Reservoir Dogs when he starred in it so he was actually trying and not giving his usual lazy performance.

  21. Just wanted to mention that Return of the Living Dead II is a pile of shit. Thank you.

  22. Oh, that reminds me. 1987’s WHITE OF THE EYE, starring David Keith and Cathy Moriarty, directed by the great, crazy Donald Cammell, who shot himself back in the 1990s, is a weird arty serial killer film that you should check out, Vern.

  23. FUCKING GREAT MOVIE. I don’t think it’s available on Region 1, but I got the import and found it really creepy and oddly real. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but give it time. It’s a real gem.

  24. I actually just watched this and think the killer might have supernatural abilities, such as the ability to see where his victims are at all times even when he is miles away presumably calling them underneath his cuckoo clock (remember the music it played) in his apartment. Like, for instance, the secretary that he called while in her office and then again when she got on the elevator. Suddenly, he’s in her parking garage within a matter of seconds. I really wanted to know what this guy did for a living besides raping and killing.

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