Even though I’ve seen probably thousands of movies, I always know that there are countless more I haven’t seen and likely never will. Too much to ever achieve, and I’m aware of that. I’ve made peace. BUT, more intriguing to me are movies I’ve never even heard of that seem like I should have at some point. “How did I not know this existed?!?!” I’ll say to a room full of nobody. One such movie landed on my doorstep (literally, thanks to being on review lists), I hadn’t ever heard of it, and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. It’s a movie from 1987, shot in Middle-of-Nowhere, AZ, and is honestly one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in awhile. So, naturally, I’m now obsessed with it. It’s Donald Cammell’s White of the Eye.
The trailer doesn’t do a great job of conveying the weird tone and art house cinematography of the movie. I confess, when the movie started and I saw the Cannon Films logo, I was not holding out much hope. Golan and Globus produced and released hundreds of movies during the ’80s and only a few of them ended up being good; if you throw a billion pieces of rice at a wall with 30 tiny holes in it, a few of them might go through. Cammell was a troubled figure, making his debut by co-writing and co-directing 1970’s Performance with Nicolas Roeg. He didn’t make another feature until 1977’s Demon Seed and then another ten years passed before White of the Eye, in between making music videos. Though based on a novel, White of the Eye is a real auteurist piece, focusing on Apache mysticism and the animalistic nature of humanity.
The movie takes place in a very affluent and isolated community in Arizona, where attractive, wealthy housewives seem to be the only citizens, at least the only ones worth seeing. This leads us to the opening sequence which features one such housewife coming home only to find that some intruder, who we only see as an extreme close-up of an eyeball, attacks her and butchers her. This is shot very artfully, with no gore but a lot of red color flying around the room and onto a butcher knife. This isn’t the first such murder in the area, and, as is the case with a lot of these type of movies, the police are baffled.
We’re then introduced to Paul White (David Keith), a handsome and seemingly fun-loving guy who installs high-end sound equipment. He has a special talent where he makes a specific noise that reverberates in his head and he can tell exactly where to put speakers in a room for optimum acoustic perfection. This is actually in a movie. He’s married to Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and they have a daughter who’s about 10. Clues in the serial killings lead Detective Mendoza (Art Evans) to question Paul, but he couldn’t possibly be guilty, could he? We also learn that, 10 years ago, John was dating a cool guy from New York named Mike Desantos (Alan Rosenberg), and the three were friends until Paul stole Joan away.
Slowly, the evidence starts piling up against Paul, namely because it turns out he’s been sleeping with most of these women, and indeed most of the attractive, rich housewives in the area. Joan finds out about this and is real angry, but still thinks her husband couldn’t possibly be the killer and so provides him an alibi. At the same time, she meets Mike again, who is pretty down on his luck following a stint in prison and a head injury that makes him think he sees visions on a TV in his head. He still hates Paul for taking Joan away from him, and we see that the reason Mike left was because Paul threatened him following a hunting trip where Paul slaughters a deer and rubs blood on his face.
But, as you probably guessed from the trailer, Paul IS actually the murderer, which Joan finds out after finding body parts of the victims wrapped up in the cellar. Paul tries to explain this by him being “chosen” by the ancient ones to “free” these women who are trapped by the material world. Or some such malarkey like that. He maintains he’d never hurt Joan or their daughter, but clearly that guy isn’t to be trusted, which leads him to wrap himself in dynamite and bullets, smear red on his face, and start hunting his wife with a big huge shotgun and knife.
This is not the typical “man she thought she knew” thriller that was oh-so prevalent in the 1980s. It focuses a lot on Paul’s state of mind regarding this weird Apache folklore. There’s also a lot of time spent with Paul without Joan around, which would generally indicate that he’s not going to turn out to be the villain — point of view being a big indicator in films of protagonist/antagonist relationship. For the first chunk of the movie, we could believe that Paul is just being framed, but once Joan finds the body parts, it’s not so much a rug-pull but it is a definite “wait, really?” And he fully admits it, too, which is bizarre.
Cammell’s strength really lies in his crazy, very music-videoy cinematography. The murder scenes, sex scenes, and chase scenes toward the end are full of zooms and fisheye lenses and things like that. One woman gets killed in her bathroom when Paul turns her upside down, conks her head on the floor, then shoves her under the water in the bathtub while he holds a mirror over her face so she can watch herself drown. That is incredibly disturbing. And I think what makes the movie work is that, despite the weird mystical stuff, David Keith feels like a “real” psychopath — he’s not Jason or Leatherface; he’s a messed up guy who does these awful things to people. There’s a Giallo vibe to some of the murders, but the rest of the movie feels very weird and arty. Cammell even changes the kind of film used for flashbacks to make them look older and grainier.
For many years, White of the Eye was unavailable and largely unknown here in the U.S., though it was something of a minor hit in Britain. Cammell sporadically made other films, but when the producers re-cut his 1995 film Wild Side, he committed suicide. Clearly, the man had demons to work through, and you can see almost every one of them in this movie. Thanks to Scream Factory, this movie is now available on Blu-ray in North America (using a restoration by the UK’s Arrow Films), so I would highly recommend seeking it out, if for no other reason than to check another “I didn’t know it existed” off of your list.