If you're a wealthy, attractive woman, stay out of Arizona, because you are fair game. A twisted killer is on the loose and he tortures and dissects his beautiful victims as part of a primitive Indian ritual. All the clues lead to one man, who is clearly innocent. But nothing is as simple as black and white. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
When I first discovered Donald Cammell’s semi-obscure 1987 thriller, White of the Eye, I was confronted with a film that appeared to have been made with me, my interests, and my life experiences in mind. The first shock is that it was shot in and around my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I was gobsmacked when confronted with landmarks that I hadn’t thought about in probably more than a decade – the opening credits, for instance, run over helicopter shots of the 1986 construction of the UniSource Energy Tower, which is still the tallest building in the city. Soon after, I realized that White of the Eye was a kind of duel reaction to North American slashers and Dario Argento’s increasingly stylish, ‘80s fashion-friendly gialli. The last straw was that co-lead David Keith’s (who made his directorial debut the same year with The Curse) in-movie profession was an audio/video specialist who impresses women by finding the aural center of a room and pointing to the perfect corners for speaker placement.
Oddly specific nostalgia aside, White of the Eye really is an underrated gem in the busy ocean that is ‘80s horror. Sold mostly as a slasher movie, Cammell’s film is an intoxicating blend of romantic melodrama, hyper violence (reportedly, the MPAA had originally tagged it with an X, before Marlon Brando himself wrote an appeal on Cammell’s behalf), surrealistic imagery, and existential dread. The easiest – though not entirely most accurate – way to sum it up is “Ingmar Bergman meets Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) as directed by a Manhunter (1986) era Michael Mann. There are typical bodycount movie thrills, such as the balletically slow motion murder sequences and a nerve-shredding hide & seek climax (clearly inspired by the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple ), but Cammell isn’t purely interested in the entertainment value of violence as characterized by most conventional slashers. Really, he is more invested in contemplating violence as an abstract, sometimes metaphysical subject. He achieves this via flagrantly artistic techniques (the aforementioned slo-mo kills, for instance) and by aligning the audience’s interests with the murderer very early in the film, before his identity has even been officially revealed (the murder mystery aspects of the first two acts end up serving little purpose beyond perhaps referencing the slashers and gialli that the director is occasionally evoking).
Not surprisingly, White of the Eye was a box office flop. It was too esoteric for the slasher movie crowd and not Hitchcock-derivative enough for the growing indie thriller crowd. Beyond the film’s monetary loss and tumble into obscurity, Cammell was also a notoriously eccentric filmmaker, who was reportedly very difficult to work with. He only managed to produce four feature-length movies as director – the other three being Performance (co-directed with Don’t Look Now director Nicolas Roeg, 1970), the Julie Christie-starring killer computer meets Rosemary’s Baby movie Demon Seed (1977), and erotic thriller Wild Side (1995) – before taking his own life in 1996.
White of the Eye’s only official DVD release came via Mælström home video in Holland. That version was highly coveted, despite featuring no extras, because it was, for a time, the only way to see the film in widescreen. In 2014, Arrow Films UK released the first Blu-ray edition (technically a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack) and that 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was recycled for Scream Factory’s RA BD version (the film even begins with a disclaimer, stating that Arrow did the 2K restoration). I do have access to both discs and started gathering screen caps from both for comparison, but realized that the minute differences in compression were rendered moot after the images were compressed into a JPG format. White of the Eye is not intended to look entirely immaculate. Cammell, cinematographer Larry McConkey, and ‘lighting cameraman’ Edward A. Gutentag take pains to create a dreamy atmosphere, which includes a lot of foggy focus and diffused lighting. This leads to considerable grain, cross-colouration effects, and inconsistent detail. The extreme close-ups are all quite sharp, but the textures and patterns of medium and wide-angle images are understandably fuzzy. In addition, the flashback sequences were heavily altered using the bleach-bypass process, which pushes the contrast and desaturates the image to the point that it is nearly monochromatic. I assure viewers that these are purposeful artifacts and that there is still plenty of complexity in the image.
Scream Factory’s disc includes both the original 2.0 soundtrack and a new 5.1 remix in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. In comparison, the Arrow disc only features a 2.0 LPCM soundtrack. Though the dialogue track is better-centered and the discrete LFE gives a minor boost to some of the music, I found little difference between the two tracks. The rear channels are barely involved in either case, clarity is similar, and I actually prefer the wider stereo spread of the 2.0 track (the remix tries to make music and incidental sound effects are more ‘natural’ by centering them in the viewing room). The prog-rock/electronic soundtrack, by session guitarist Rick Fenn and Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, is another of the film’s many highlights.
Commentary by Donald Cammell biographer Sam Umland – This same track appears on Arrow’s release. Umland delves into every aspect of the film, from its production history, to Cammell’s career, the careers of the actors, differences between the movie and Andrew Klavan’s source novel (Mrs. White, pub. 1983), and even the history of the film’s Arizona locations (a nice easter egg for a guy that grew up in the area). His most valuable additions are his views on the film’s heavy social and psychological subtexts. The Freudian themes are obvious enough for a novice like myself to notice, but Umland’s descriptions of tribal and psychological motifs are far beyond my station. This track comes highly recommended.
Into The White (11:00, HD) – This retrospective interview with cinematographer/steadicam operator Larry McConkey first appeared on Arrow UK’s Blu-ray. In it, McConkey covers the bulk of the production, but focuses mostly on the conflict that Cammell purposefully created on set.
Into The Vortex (17:50, HD) – A new interview with actor Alan Rosenberg, who has surprisingly fond memories of what was, by all other accounts, a very difficult shoot. Though, he does credit China Cammell (née Chong), the co-writer and Cammell’s widow, as keeping the production ‘grounded.’ Eventually, he begins to recall some of the production problems, too.
Eye Of The Detective (15:40, HD) – Another new actor interview with Art Evans (who many may remember from Die Hard 2). Evans, who was shooting Ruthless People at the same time, begins the interview very thankful for the concessions Cammell made to keep him in the movie. This colours the rest of his memories, even the negative ones, and offers contrast to McConkey’s horror stories.
Deleted scenes with Sam Umland commentary (5:30, HD) – These scenes were discovered by Arrow without audio, so our friendly Cammell expert describes what we are watching.
Alternate credit sequence (2:30, HD)
Footage from the flashback sequences prior to the bleach bypass process that makes them so gritty and high contrast (11:50, HD)
Arrow’s UK version does not include the Rosenberg and Evans interviews, but does have an exclusive documentary on Cammell’s career (The Ultimate Performance) and a 1972 short film (The Argument).
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.