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Review: “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978)

Susan Jane Gilman, in her book “Kiss My Tiara,” spends one chapter bemoaning the fates female protagonists face in motion pictures, and one of her sharpest observations applies well to Irvin Kershner’s hyper-stylish thriller “Eyes of Laura Mars.” The Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) of the title fits into the category of Women Who Fall for Psychotic Murderers Because Boy Are They Handsome. Dunaway has no choice but to play along, even though the part requires her to clutch her head and wail like a banshee. Oh, the harrowing drama of high fashion photography in the Big Apple.

Revealing Laura Mars’ type means pains must be taken not to give away the Twist Ending … which doesn’t amount to much surprise for anyone paying attention. So on the subject of plot I will tread gingerly: Laura Mars is an N.Y.C. photographer whose violent artwork has ignited a firestorm of controversy about the subject matter. She dresses her subjects in runway frocks and arranges them for shock value, using provocative poses and staged violence to express her vision. Critics, reporters and the public argue endlessly about her work: Is photography itself a viable form of artistic expression or a sign that painting is hopelessly outdated? Do Laura’s photos glorify violence or comment on it? Laura likes to think she draws attention to mankind’s savageness and her work has little effect beyond that. Her flamboyant assistant (Rene Auberjonois) could care less about perception as long as Laura keeps her schedule. Yet the photos may be the reason a murderer begins picking off people in Laura’s circle and posing the victims just as she does in her shoots.

“Eyes of Laura Mars” would be a garden-variety whodunnit save for one detail: Laura, through psychic or supernatural visions, can see the killer commit each crime. These visions come on suddenly and are never wrong, prompting cop John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones, in top form), who’s investigating the killings, to bring Laura in as a witness. Sure enough, she’s surrounded by potential murders. Both her alcoholic ex-husband Michael (Raul Julia) and her driver Tommy (Brad Dourif, bless his shifty eyes), an ex-con with a lengthy rap sheet and a nervous expression that indicate all’s not well in his mind, initially look good for the crimes. However, one of the film’s most glaring flaws is the setup of Michael, Tommy and others as suspects; immediately after meeting these men it becomes apparent they aren’t guilty. Is a little subtlety, a little intrigue too much to hope for in a psychological thriller? Must these characters be drawn in such thick magic marker strokes? Hence the transparency of the ending, at which point “Eyes of Laura Mars” devolves into an orgy of weeping and yelling and and more weeping — all of it done tolerably well by Dunaway. She may be prey, but there’s nary a shiny hair out of place.

This attention to style is where the movie accumulates points. The makeup and costuming are flawless and eye-catching, the epitome of high fashion, while nearly all the actors possess bone structure or some other feature so startling it’s a shame Michelangelo wasn’t around in the 1970s to paint them. In terms of visuals, “Eyes of Laura Mars” is a singular and striking film. Laura’s visions, too, are handled impressively — they resemble a peep through a dirty camera lens, and when Laura has them they inspire genuine unease. The visions, though, are never explained, and we’re left to wonder why. Perhaps this is a conscious choice the director makes to make them seem more “secretive,” or perhaps it’s an oversight caused by fashion overload.

Even more frustrating than these baffling visions is seeing Faye Dunaway relegated to a part so devoid of nuance (“Mommie Dearest” aside, she is capable of nuance). John Neville is a character of true mystery whose story we want to know. Laura Mars, though? Dunaway tries but she can’t create much intrigue for a character meant to fit the bill of Everyvictim. Maybe John Carpenter, who co-wrote the screenplay, learned an important lesson from this, a lesson he used in “Halloween”: A heroine’s not much of a heroine if she can’t think on her feet.

Grade: C

Highbrow, lowbrow mix in disappointing “Halloween II”

Halloween_II

Is it me, or is Michael Myers starting to look suspiciously like Leatherface?

A mere 10 minutes in and with some help from a white horse and his kohl-pencil loving wife, Rob Zombie loudly announces his intentions for “Halloween II”: He’s out to make a thinking man’s movie about Michael Myers. One where the immortal murderer sees his dear departed mum (Sheri Moon Zombie) in spooky, hazy midnight hallucinations and she lays out a master plan for family togetherness that involves dispatching young Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton). She also offers motherly advice about future kills (“now go have some fun”) and strokes her hulking son’s furrowed brow.

In a word: Spare me.

Or perhaps I should say spare us, Zombie-comma-Rob, and by “us” I mean all the Michael Myers fans who have been hanging in since the start, the ones who have seen every petrified crap-pile remake and sequel and meta-sequel with the tiniest shred of hope that this director saw the original, or at least read the blurb on the back cover of the DVD. Zombie’s first attempt, “Halloween,” showed a wee flicker of promise because there was an eerieness there (thanks to Daeg Faerch) that nearly balanced out the gore. Not so with “Halloween II,” a mindless, pointless exercise in blood spillage interrupted frequently by crazy, acid-like dream sequences. So “Halloween II” isn’t just a stupid movie, it’s a pretentious one. The fact that Zombie attempts to combine these qualities is about the only original thing this huge, lumbering disappointment has to offer. 

Right off things don’t look so bad, since “Halloween II” begins where its not-so-bad predecessor ended: Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has survived the Halloween massacre of her brother Michael (Tyler Mane), but not without serious physical and psychological scars. Now living with her friend Annie (Danielle Harris, whom you might remember from “Halloween 4” and “Halloween 5”) and Annie’s father, Sheriff Lee Brackett (Brad Dourif), Laurie’s wracked with nightmares and panic attacks. Her anxiety only deepens when Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) outs her as Michael’s sister and proceeds to turn her name and Michael’s victims into big book sales. Slowly slicing and dicing his way into this storyline is Michael, driven by hallucinations to find his baby sister and stage the kind of family reunion that would make the Firefly family squeal with delight. 

That’s really all that happens in “Halloween II” in the way of plot. There’s some random teen-age sex (in a van, no less) that’s generic in its sluttiness included for good measure, or perhaps because that’s a horror movie requirement, but mostly “Halloween II” is a veritable smorgasbord of crunched bones, split throats, stomped-in craniums and severed heads. It’s crass and pointless, and what’s more it’s not inventive or even terribly interesting. If Zombie’s out to startle us with gore, he more than missed his chance — the “Hostel” and “Saw” movies long ago killed off the shock centers of our brains. What “Halloween II” serves up in the way of violence barely merits a raised eyebrow, let alone a quick dip behind the popcorn bucket or a hands-over-the-eyes maneuver. This is positively run-of-the-mill, and on its own the gore would be enough to make “Halloween II” an average horror movie.

The bigger problem here is that Zombie tries to merge Michael’s self-consciously arty and trippy visions with all the killing, and it just plain doesn’t work. There’s a serious disconnect between these two stories that never gets repaired; in fact, it seems like Zombie wrote two movies and tossed both scripts into the air, grabbing the pages and putting them in random order. Either approach would have made a decently watchable movie, but together these storylines create a big mess.

There’s probably not much point in mentioning the acting, since McDowell is no Donald Pleasance, Laurie’s friends are largely dispensable and Taylor-Compton makes Laurie into a potty-mouthed, whiny Anyteen who can barely keep our interest, much less our sympathy. She does, however, get one good line: “Nightmares are chewing at my head again … they just seem to be getting worse.”

After sitting through “Halloween II”? Yeah, I’d say my brain felt decidedly nibbled.

Grade: D