The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

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Irvin Kershner’s ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ is a film that was on my radar as something camp and creepy and trashy before I even knew what camp was. One of those movies that popped up on late night TV in the UK during my formative years in the late 80s and then the 90s. I knew of Faye Dunaway because everybody’s mum in working class Liverpool in the 80s had a copy of ‘Mommie Dearest’ recorded off the TV. I would be treated to her histrionics regularly with my mother tutting and huffing and commenting on how awful that Joan Crawford was to those poor kids. Obviously I agreed but under my breath I was leaping to her defence purely because she was so damn fabulous.

Well a couple of years before she wowed gays and grannies with her insane and camp genius take on Joan Crawford, Dunaway struck out with this rather under-rated and glamorous thriller. The premise is enough to make a queer horror fan yelp with delight – a chic female fashion photographer in Manhattan has psychic visions of murders through the viewfinder of her Nikon FM. As she becomes embroiled in the police investigation – and falls for handsome detective Tommy Lee Jones – her fellow fashionistas and models begin to fall victim to the killer…

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Cards on the table this movie is a pretty run-of-the-mill murder mystery. The gore is sparing but effective (needle to the eye anyone?), the pacing is pretty damn slow, and you can see the ‘twist’ ending coming a mile off. So why did I love it? Well, to say this film is camp would be an understatement akin to saying Donald Trump is ‘slightly unhinged’. Peppered throughout with glamorous photo shoots, a cast who are constantly turned up to the power of 100 in the drama stakes, and a funky disco soundtrack to boot, ‘Laura Mars’ avoids sending you to sleep by throwing something in fur, diamonds or, in one case, mauve maribou feathers, right in your face to hook you back in.

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Faye Dunaway is no stranger to hamming it up and boy does she have fun chewing up the scenery here. You’ll clutch your pearls every time she tears through a warehouse screaming for her camp-as-tits agent ‘DONAAAAALLLLDDD!!! (Rene Auberjonois), or whenever she pours brandy from a decanter that looks like a giant bottle of Chanel No.5. I decided it was in fact Chanel No.5 which she guzzled by the gallon. It would certainly explain her overacting. The role of Laura was actually offered to Barbra Streisand by producer Jon Peters – at the time the two were an item. But Streisand thought the subject matter too ‘kinky’ and turned it down. She did however record the theme song – the suitably OTT ballad ‘Prisoner’. Listen and weep…

In Streisand’s hands Laura would probably come across more quirky and streetsmart than she does here. Dunaway gives us a floaty, dreamy, vulnerable but effortlessly cool Manhattan lady with bad taste in men but a flare for the more macabre side of fashion photography. Her shoots all consist of death and destruction – murder scenes, freak accidents and in one beautifully trashy moment that is downright iconic – a multi-car pile-up with dead models strewn about Columbus circle whilst two hotties in lingerie and fur coats have a cat fight amidst the wreckage. David La Chapelle was definitely taking notes.

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I spent the entirety of the film thinking I recognised many of Laura’s photographs, wondering if they were Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton. I was right on the latter. Newton’s photographs double for Laura Mars originals in many scenes.

The psychic element coupled with the high fashion setting, not to mention the funky interiors and the police procedurals, obviously draw comparisons with gialli. And rightly so. A gloved hand, blurred vision from the killer’s POV, red herrings thrown about the place with gay abandon, not to mentions its, shall we say, leisurely pace for a thriller, make this a definite American stab at a giallo film.

More horror kudos comes in the form of John Carpenter. He penned the original story idea and screenplay, although by time it got to screen it had been rewritten under studio orders by David Zelag Goodman. Brad Dourif (Chucky himself) also features prominently, and the killer’s back-story coupled with the stalking of a fashion photographer pre-empt what was to come with ‘Maniac’ (both original and remake).

I watched ‘Laura’ on the Horror Channel, which I love but sometimes the quality of the picture is sub-par to even YouTube. So given the vibrant world the characters inhabit this definitely warrants a watch in HD. If you want high camp, high drama, a time capsule of disco era New York and a prime example of American giallo, then give Laura Mars a chance. Just don’t let her take your picture, you could end up dead.

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But at least you’ll look fabulous…

(JL)

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