When person embarks on making any kind of murder mystery one must ask the question, “What makes my thriller about a crazed killer stand out from others of its kind?” Does the movie have a brilliant but eccentric detective? Is the hero/heroine a spunky and resourceful fighter? Is the setting for this mystery in outer space or some equally cut-off location? Coming up with a decent hook or original twist has to be about the hardest thing when trying to write a story about a crazed killer for if you’re not careful you just end up with a generic slasher film that is soon forgotten. Enter producer Jon Peters who stumbled across a screenplay written by John Carpenter (Note: This script was bouncing around before Carpenter’s break-out film Halloween) and he thought it would be a great project for his then girlfriend Barbara Streisand, but when she thought the script was too “kinky” for her tastes Peters turned to Network’s Oscar winning actress Faye Dunaway. So what kind of take does the Eyes of Laura Mars bring to the genre? Honestly, I have no idea and I’m pretty sure all those involved didn’t have a clue either.
The movie is centered on controversial fashion photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), whose unique style of mixing sex and violence in her work has caught the eye of homicide detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) because some of the photographs found in her coffee table book “The Eyes of Mars” closely mirror actual crime scene photos. As premises go that’s not bad; crazed killer imitating the work of a famous artist could lead to some interesting discussions on the responsibility of an artists and the work, but that’s not all this movie throws at us because not only is Laura’s work somehow linked to a killer but she is suddenly having visions of said killer as he stalks and murders his latest victims. She is literally seeing through the eyes of the killer.
To say these nightmarish images leave Laura a little distraught would be an understatement but when she discovers that these “visions” actually took place, and that someone is out there murdering her friends and associates, she starts to get pushed towards the edges of sanity. Dunaway is without a doubt one of the great actresses of our time but her portrayal of Laura Mars is basically a one note “Woman in Danger” role with her character looking panicked or terrified to varying degrees for the bulk of the film’s running time. So right there the film fails on the delivery of an interesting protagonist, and though I’m not one who expects every thriller to have a spunky heroine who insist on investigating the horrible goings on despite the possible dangers, but if the character’s sole purpose is to simply scream and run in blind terror she’s not only boring but someone not worth rooting for, that is when she’s not having one of her “terrifying” visions.
So if the film’s heroine is less than interesting then what about the killer? Because we only get POV shots of the murders (Side Note: Why do all these types of killers stare up at the knife hand during their kills?) we never get a sense of what kind of crazed individual we are dealing with or what really motivates him. Is he obsessed with Laura’s photos because he hates them or because they inspire him? Sadly the film seems even less interested in the killer than Detective Neville is as he seems more intrigued with the idea of getting into the pants of this “Frustrated voyeur type” as he calls her, than in catching the killer. And just what kind of suspects does this film?
Could the killer be Laura’s slimey ex-husband Michael Reisler (Raul Julia), a womanizing drunkard and gigolo whose last money ticket was a friend of Laura’s and a victim of the killer?
What about her manager and friend Donald Phelps (Rene Auberjonois) who is maybe a trifle overbearing and controlling.
How about her personal driver Tommy Ludlow (Brad Dourif), an ex-con who is mostly guilty of being played by Brad Dourif.
The suspects and red herrings though obvious and clichéd aren’t even the film’s major problem as I’ve seen worse in countless other examples of the genre, and at least the caliber of actors on hand here raises it above many of its contemporaries, but what sinks the film for me is that the whole premise of “Laura is seeing through the eyes of a killer” is never explained. Is the killer an unbeknownst evil twin of Laura’s? Could it be that she is possessed by the ghost of a previous victim? Or maybe she just suddenly developed psychic powers like John Smith from The Dead Zone. Anyone of those would have been better than the non-explanation we get, and worse the filmmakers decided that the best way to end this type of film would be with a twist, one that comes out of left field and without one ounce of evidence presented before the “big reveal” that would lead us to buy into it. If you don’t want to learn the startling twist behind the Eyes of Laura Mars stop reading now.
After prime suspect, and one of the film’s chief red herrings, Tommy Ludlow is murdered during a police chase the killer is presumed dead (a terrible and criminal way to underutilized Brad Dourif), but despite this “good news” Laura is shocked to find herself still being afflicted by one last vision of the killer. Turns out the killer wasn’t her driver but was actually Detective John Neville, he gives us a long rambling monologue about being the child of a prostitute who witnessed his mother’s murder, and that he now clearly suffers from multiple personalities becomes very apparent. And what is the psychic connection between them that allows Laura to see through Neville’s eyes? Who the fuck knows, and that includes the filmmakers who clearly pulled this little revelation right out of their collective asses.
Director Irvin Kershner tried to at least make a visually interesting movie but whatever goodwill the movie manages to garner during it’s running time is completely derailed by the last act because when it is revealed that Neville is the actually killer we aren’t so much shocked as we are perplexed. The key to a plot twist working is that once the big reveal happens it should make us look back at the film with a whole new light, watching Psycho or The Sixth Sense a second time you will find yourself noticing clues that could have tipped you off that something wasn’t quite right, but in the case of the Eyes of Laura Mars there was nothing to indicate that John Neville was anything more than an average police detective who just so happened to find Fay Dunaway irresistible.
Apparently the spec script written by John Carpenter was extensively rewritten and the ending, including the identity of the killer, was changed and that Carpenter had nothing to do with the final product. I’d be interesting to find out who was the intended killer in Carpenter’s version as the one we got was clearly a case of the studio wanting a “shocking” ending without bothering to work out the whys and wherefores. Basically Eyes of Laura Mars comes across more as an average episode of Night Gallery than it does a movie, and the film’s twisting ending is an insult to the viewer.