The Films of John Carpenter: Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Technically, Eyes of Laura Mars is not a John Carpenter film (it was directed by Irvin Kershner), but one based on a screenplay he had written titled “Eyes”. Producer Jack H. Harris, who was involved with Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star, handed a treatment of “Eyes” to Jon Peters at Columbia Pictures, who liked the concept of a woman who psychopathically witnesses murders through the eyes of the killer. Unfortunately, the script would go through a number of transformations over time, leaving little resemblance between Carpenter’s original vision and the finished film.

Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is New York City’s hottest, and most controversial, fashion photographer. Her photos, consisting of scantily-clad women and set against ultra-violent backdrops, have simultaneously stirred the admiration and incited the fury of the New York elite. But the violence in Laura Mars’ creations runs much deeper than mere sensationalism. Laura possesses a unique psychic power, one that allows her to witness, in her mind’s eye, actual murders as they are occurring, seeing every terrifying detail through the eyes of the murderer himself. Recently, the killings that Laura has ‘seen’ are of people close to her, and police detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to know the connection. As the bodies pile up, Laura begins to suspect that the killer is someone very close to her, and that she may be the ultimate target of his murderous spree.

According to Carpenter, the studio originally wanted Barbra Streisand for the role of Laura Mars, and asked him to rewrite the character so that it would be better suited to Streisand’s personality (a task Carpenter found very frustrating). Before it was given a final stamp of approval by Columbia, the script would pass through a number of rewrites, involving a number of writers, until David Zelag Goodman finally gave Jon Peters what he was looking for. Of course, the role eventually went to Faye Dunaway, a casting decision that I believe ultimately hurt the film. Throughout the entirety of Eyes of Laura Mars, Dunaway’s performance never strays from a single note, which can best be described as one of despair for her situation. I saw Laura Mars as much more multi-faceted than that; a driven artist, a scorned wife, and even a love interest. All of these took a backseat in Dunaway’s portrayal, leaving some potentially interesting aspects of the character under-explored. Faye Dunaway is a talented actress, and when she’s on (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Network), she’s tremendous. Eyes of Laura Mars was a definite misstep for her. The supporting performances are all exceptional, especially Brad Dourif as the chauffeur with a troubled past, but let’s face it: Laura Mars is the title character, and the film is going to sink or swim based on her and her alone. Unfortunately, Eyes of Laura Mars sinks pretty quickly.

(WARNING: Possible spoilers follow in the next 3 paragraphs). But Dunaway’s performance was just one of several problems I had with Eyes of Laura Mars. Another weakness was an area in which the film needed to excel: the staging of the murders. For me, these scenes generated no real tension, mostly because of what I knew about Laura Mars going into them. Having already been clued in on the character’s psychic abilities, there’s little mystery as to what’s going to happen when she starts ‘seeing’ through someone else’s eyes, leaving moments that should have been thrilling feeling a little flat instead (the one exception being the first time Laura sees herself through the killer’s eyes). There were also inconsistencies in the way Laura’s visions affected her. In one scene, where she’s ‘watching’ the murders of models Lulu (Darlanne Fluegel) and Michele (Lisa Taylor), Laura is left temporarily blinded, stumbling around her apartment to find a phone so that she can warn them of the danger. The next time she’s experiencing a murderous vision, Laura’s actually driving a car, which she seems to navigate just fine through the whole ordeal (until the killing is complete, at which time she crashes the car through a wall).

Finally, there’s the killer himself, whose identity was certainly a surprise, but one that raised many more questions than it answered. In the end, the killer was someone very close to Laura, marking a major change from Carpenter’s original script, a change the filmmaker took issue with. He had this to say about it in Gilles Boulenger’s “John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness”:

    “In Hollywood, there’s an old saying that claims, ‘The better the villain, the better the movie’. That’s not necessarily the case in the sense of what’s scary. What’s scary is something that’s random, that’s unknown. The unknown killer that walks up and kills you for no reason is utterly terrifying because you are defenseless against it. In my original version of ‘Eyes’, a normal person was suddenly seeing through the eyes of a psychopath. To me it was a really very chilling idea, but to make him somebody that the lead character and the audience knew, all of a sudden the problem opens up like a yawning pit!”

Eyes of Laura Mars contains moments of suspense that are mildly effective, but not enough of them to lift it beyond a level of mediocrity. As it stands, the legacy of Eyes of Laura Mars is one of a fascinating concept, an interesting story, and a missed opportunity.