Movie of the Month: White of the Eye (1987)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made HannaBoomer, and Brandon watch White of the Eye (1987).

Britnee: If you’ve ever wondered if a Southwestern giallo exists, I am here to tell you that it does, and it’s 1987’s White of the Eye. Its director, Donald Cammell, was a gifted painter, and his artistic eye makes every scene in White of the Eye a visual feast, the way you’d expect to see in gialli. Neon blood splattered across a white table, uncomfortable eyeball closeups, modern desert homes shot through a voyueristic lens; it’s all so mesmerizing. Also, his wife China Cammell co-wrote the screenplay (based on the novel Mrs. White by Margaret Tracy) and appears in the small role of Ruby Roy. I thought that wife/husband collaboration was sweet at first, until I realized that China was 14 when she met the 40-year-old Donald, so their relationship wasn’t really a healthy one. It turns out that Donald was a gross creep like so many other male directors (and like the villain of his own movie).  

White of the Eye stars David Keith as Paul White and Cathy Moriarty as Joan White. They’re a young married couple who live in Arizona with their daughter, a 5-year-old who looks like a 30-something kindergarten teacher. David is the town’s go-to sound system installer. He has a bizarre gift where he hums to pinpoint the exact, perfect speaker placement in every room. At least that’s what I think he’s doing. There’s a lot going on in this movie that I can’t fully make sense of. As we peek in on the family’s daily routine, there’s something sinister going on in the background: a serial killer is brutally murdering wealthy women in the area, and there’s a strong possibility the killer is Paul. Cathy has to determine if her husband is really who she thinks he is or if he’s a psychotic monster. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but just know that it descends into pure chaos by the end and it’s fascinating.

This film has one of the wildest opening scenes. A well-to-do woman returns to her home after a shopping trip and is slaughtered by a killer lurking in her kitchen. During their struggle, there’s slow-motion headbashing, blood splattering, glass shattering and, most memorably, a tiny goldfish flopping around a raw rib rack on the kitchen counter. When I first saw this movie, I thought about that scene for weeks. To me, it’s the most impressive imagery in the entire film. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the camerawork in White of the Eye? Did any particular scenes stick with you after the movie ended?

Brandon: That opening, bloodspattered tour of a Southwestern suburban kitchen is, without question, the most visually striking scene in the movie, and it’s the one that’s stuck most in my mind as well.  However, I’m not convinced it’s the camerawork that makes it such a stunner.  If we’re going to contextualize White of the Eye as an American giallo, we have to acknowledge that it looks like a giallo shot by the TV crew behind Walker, Texas Ranger.  Whether it’s a result of the sun-blazed setting or the Golan-Globus production funds, there’s a daytime TV cheapness to the look of White of the Eye that cannot be overcome through Cammell’s . . . unusual choice of imagery.  Where he overcomes that cheapness isn’t in the camerawork so much as it’s in the editing, which is what truly gives the movie its unwieldy, dreamlike tone.  There are isolated, static images in that kitchen sequence that look absolutely bizarre, but mostly because they’re presented as rapid inserts your brain doesn’t have enough time to fully interpret: flowers falling from the countertop, legs kicking in purple tights, that goldfish flopping on the raw meat, etc.  I was likewise struck by the long, aimless establishing shots of the desert outside these suburban homes, which linger just long enough to breach into Lynchian territory of moody unease.  Again, there’s nothing especially beautiful about those exterior shots’ composition or execution; they’re just edited into a flabbergasting sequence that I could never fully wrap my mind around (not least of all because they’re frequently repeated at full length).  The entire movie borders on looking & feeling mundane, and yet it’s electrifying in its off-kilter presentation.

If White of the Eye is a giallo, it’s a knockoff giallo that gets lost in the American desert for a while, then emerges as a sun-dazed erotic thriller.  It’s a high-style, low-logic murder mystery in the way most great gialli are, but it’s one that actually has something to say after the final reveal of its faceless killer, which most gialli don’t.  That’s why I think it’s important that we do spoil the third-act twists of the plot in this conversation, since it’s largely what makes the film special.  In the same year that the literal war of the sexes reached its misogynist fever pitch in Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, White of the Eye offered a much more realistic source of unhinged mayhem at the end of its erotic thriller rainbow: an entitled, woman-hating white guy.  It turns out David is not only psychotic for the way he treats tuning audio systems into a spiritual ritual & guiding way of life; he’s also a violent misogynist with some very strange, far-out theories about why all women are evil and deserve to be murdered.  Once White of the Eye fully devolves into a sunlit slasher in its final act, David starts ranting at length about the interplanetary war between Men (from Mars, duh) & Women (from Venus, obv) in a way that doesn’t sound too far off from the kind of unhinged babble you’d expect to read on modern subreddits for MRAs & “gender-critical” TERFs.  Hanna, what did you make of David’s sudden swerve into hateful, faux-philosophical gender politics?  Did it make him a scarier villain or just a more confounding one?  And how does that choice of villain communicate with other war-of-the-sexes thrillers of this era?

Hanna: I was really torn on Paul’s turn initially, but I appreciate it the more I think about it. Despite all of the glaring signs to the contrary, I was somehow expecting some other candidate to pop up and pronounce themself the killer (maybe because Paul seemed too obvious, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for the kind of guy with an obsessive relationship with sound equipment). Initially I was disappointed because it wasn’t surprising, but ultimately I don’t think the film suffers for it. Of course the hot audiophile with a primal temperament sustains a lethal, cosmo-misogynist belief system, but it still took Joan almost the entire film to get to that conclusion, partly because he’s so dang charming and partly because she’s loved him for a decade.

As far as its relationship with other “Battle of the Sexes” genre films, I appreciated the different relationships presented between and within women. Fatal Attraction set up a war against a very particular type of woman (ambitious and career-driven with an angular, gender neutral nickname), while propping Beth up as the sweet, domestic caretaker in comparison; she wins her husband’s affections in the end and Alex is killed. White of the Eye shows major and minor competition between the various women of Globe, Arizona (e.g., Ann Mason’s affair with Joan’s husband, the petty gossip Joan and her friend share about Lisa on the Globe strip), but Paul is the equalizing destructive force. Not only that, but she is the winner of Paul’s heart, and it’s a horror rather than a triumph. I think that was one of the most interesting insights from this movie – I get the feeling that the kind of guys with Paul’s obsessively hateful and lustful ideology think that women should feel lucky to be the object of love and idolatry – that it should make women feel special and superior to other women – but in reality, it’s alienating and horrifying.

I do think that the turn was a little too jarring for me, though; he really goes from mysterious seducer to all-out zealot in the span of an evening. Maybe I was also seduced by the sound equipment, but I don’t feel like I got the sense of any of his crazed personality. Maybe that was part of the point, though, since we’re hearing this story from Joan’s point of view, who can’t help but see him as her partner and father to her child (and was also blinded by his bestial charms). I loved the explosion of chaos at the back half, but it definitely caught me by surprise. Boomer, do you think ending was deserved (narratively and politically)? Was the film cohesively simmering to this point throughout the runtime, or did it come out of nowhere?

Boomer: I have to say, this movie was a stunner. Maybe it’s just that all those Argento movies warped my brain, but I genuinely felt like this was one of the best movies I’ve seen in years … until the ending. I wouldn’t say that it was cohesive up to that point, per se; it’s certainly a film that captures verisimilitude in the sense that none of this feels like characters in a narrative so much as it feels like we stepped into a desert town full of eccentric people, all of whom have relationships and communication styles that are already in play and which we, as newcomers here, have to figure out with very little in the way of exposition. It feels like we’re missing some important information here, but it’s not in a “this screenplay is underdeveloped” way (like many gialli do); it’s a hard concept to try and delineate in prose, but it’s as if we the audience are merely eavesdropping on the events of the film. In the same way that you can sit in a diner booth and hear the people at the next table—be they classmates who hate the same professor, lovers coming to the end of their time together, or a parent and adult child—and hear a fascinating narrative play out, but one which is inherently incomplete. That conversation isn’t being performed for you and therefore there are details that are left out and names that are dropped throughout and you just have to try and guess at the larger story from your small window into it, and White of the Eye feels like a film version of that. That having been said, I don’t disagree that the ending feels like a swerve. The film’s tone makes it clear that there’s an explosive confrontation that’s inevitable, but I didn’t expect that explosion to be so literal, or for things to change so suddenly. 

There’s something strange happening here with regards to race. It’s not something that European gialli can’t do necessarily, but it is something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen them do: we have a white killer appropriating indigenous American myth. The Wikipedia page for the movie states that post-Jokerfication Paul “paints his face in a form reminiscent of both Kabuki and the blood pattern of diving headfirst into a deer carcass,” but it clearly has something to do with some half-remembered legend from the previous occupants of the lands before white men came. Detective Mendoza (Art Evans was also a detective in Fright Night, which always makes me want to pretend that they’re the same character) says to his partner, “What we have here, Phil, is an ancient Indian compass. This goes back before the Vikings.” As someone who grew up around and among hunters, there’s a bizarre familiarity to Paul; my family was steadfastly and fanatically Christian, so there was never any “soul of the kill” stuff happening with them, but there were plenty of people who hung around the deer camps who did happily participate in the easy self-justification that came from “honoring” their animal prey through a muddy mixture of various lores from a dozen different tribes with just a twist of New Age mysticism. Paul is like a weed dealer you met in college who believed a bunch of crazy conspiracy nonsense and had also convinced himself he has some kind of a special, even supernatural ability to really feel the music and where it “wants” to go, maaaaaan. Given how many of those folks have fallen for #stopthesteal rhetoric or fallen under the sway of algorithm-driven ragebaiting, it shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise that Paul looks like the QAnon Shaman by the end. Then again, maybe that’s verisimilitude, too. Inevitable, but at such a strange acceleration. 

I’m going to have to say that I disagree with Brandon here, at least a little bit, and say that there’s a lot more going on with the camerawork than he’s giving credit. If you go back and watch that first kitchen-set murder scene, there are actually very few static images; there’s constant motion and change, not just in the editing, but in the composition as well. The shot that establishes the presence of a fish in the kitchen does so in a close-up that then zooms out and then takes in several other pieces of visual information: an orbiting shot of copper-bottomed pots, a pan up a refrigerator, etc. In those rare moments in which the camera stops moving, the frame is still filled with motion: glass falls into frame and shatters, a chunky tidal wave of something washes over a table and scatters the ephemera there in powerful kinetic motion, a pupil that fills the whole screen dilates. That sense of movement combined with the quick cuts is what gives this movie the overall music video aesthetic that really made it work for me. That Rick Fenn/Nick Mason collaboration on the soundtrack is an artifact that dates the movie just as much as all the customized stereo talk, but White of the Eye has the slick camera motion and quick-tempo editing that would dominate music videos of the next decade, combined with Cathy Moriarty’s performance, which is positively dripping with 70s New Hollywood energy (more on that in Lagniappe), and it renders the whole thing timeless. 

Lagniappe

Brandon:  If you want to see Donald Cammell fall even further down the erotic thriller rabbit hole, his next (and final) feature is a much more-straightforward entry in the genre.  1995’s Wild Side plays like Tommy Wiseau remaking the Wachowskis’ Bound, with a sublimely unhinged Christopher Walken in the Wiseau role, squaring off against Anne Heche & Joan Chen (Josie from Twin Peaks) as the undercover lesbians who upend his criminal empire.  Cammell started his filmmaking career collaborating with prestigious arthouse weirdo Nicolas Roeg, and he ended it making trashy thrillers for the likes of Golan-Globus.  He never lost his weird streak on that journey, though; the tonal & editing choices in White of the Eye & Wild Side are just as bizarre as anything you’ll see in the more respected Cammell titles Performance & Demon Seed.

Boomer: I love giallo, but I would also argue that this film fits into my other favorite genre: women on the verge. The desert setting called to mind 3 Women (another Britnee MotM selection), and there were moments in this where Cathy Moriarty is channeling Faye Dunaway in two of my favorites of her performances: Lou from Puzzle of a Downfall Child with her slowly unraveling peace of mind, and the title character of The Eyes of Laura Mars, in which she is confronted by the fact that (spoiler alert) the serial killer running loose in her social and professional circle is actually the man she’s taken as her lover. 

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This performance is powerful, and I loved every second that she was on screen. There’s an exhaustion that she exudes, but it’s the kind of contented tiredness of someone who’s found themselves in unexpected but nonetheless amenable circumstances, like she’s an angel who’s barely tethered to the earth. “You think I care what people think?” she asks Paul at one point, in the interrogation room. “I’m from the fucking city, I don’tgive a shit about small-town talk!” She’s like Sissy Hankshaw in Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, just this side of ethereal, who just can’t quit that dick. You know, queen shit. 

Britnee: While I’m not super familiar with desert life (I’ve only visited New Mexico for a short time), it’s obvious that the weather during the shoot was extremely hot. What’s fascinating is that there are still multiple characters wearing luxurious fur coats in that scorching desert. Joan, who has exquisite fashion taste, sports a short fox fur coat while chatting it up with Mike at the gas station. She also wears a short peacock feather coat in the flashback scenes when she’s dating Mike and meets Paul. If I’m not mistaken, she puts it on again towards the end of the film in present day. Another fur is worn by Ann, another woman who’s extremely horny for Paul. She wraps herself in this massive floor length fur coat while sipping on a cocktail. It was such a great look that Brandon made it his Facebook cover photo! 

Hanna: Every one of Cathy Moriarty’s looks is an absolute stunner, especially that peacock feathered jacket in the first flashback. I also couldn’t help being tickled by Paul’s hotdog explosive vest, one of the many outrageous fashion pieces on display.

Next month: Brandon presents All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

-The Swampflix Crew

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