Friday, December 11, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: WHITE OF THE EYE (1988)

(US - 1988)

Directed by Donald Cammell. Written by China and Donald Cammell. Cast: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Art Evans, Alan Rosenberg, Michael Greene, Alberta Watson, William G. Schilling, David Chow, Danielle Smith, Mimi Lieber, Pamela Seamon. (R, 111 mins)

Scottish-born Donald Cammell (1934-1996) made only four features over his career, beginning with the 1970 cult classic PERFORMANCE, co-directed with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. A wild, surreal mindfuck about a vicious London gangster (James Fox) on the run and going down the road to madness while hiding out with a retired, reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger) and two bisexual groupies (Anita Pallenberg, Michele Breton), the X-rated PERFORMANCE was shot in 1968 and shelved for two years by Warner Bros., who hated the movie and had no idea what to do with it. They finally released it after some re-editing against Cammell's wishes, and supported it with a promotional campaign that centered almost completely on Jagger, even though Fox is the star and Jagger doesn't even appear until 45 minutes in. This would become a recurrent theme throughout the director's career, with tragic results: his final film, the 1995 thriller WILD SIDE, which features one of Christopher Walken's most insane performances, was taken away from him in post-production and recut by the producers, who emphasized the explicit lesbian sex scenes between Joan Chen and then-newcomer Anne Heche, whose last name was mispronounced "Heck" in the trailer. It went straight to video and into regular rotation on late-night cable after Cammell had his name taken off of it, with directing credit going to the non-existent "Franklin Brauner." The filmmaker was so despondent over his serious work being retooled into a tawdry Skinemax flick that he fell into a deep depression and made the ultimate protest for final cut, shooting himself in the head in his Hollywood home on April 24, 1996. His widow and frequent collaborator China Kong claimed that it took him nearly 45 minutes to die, and he requested a mirror in order to observe his own final moments of life.

Donald Cammell (1934-1996)
Between his first and last films, Cammell made two others--1977's DEMON SEED and 1988's WHITE OF THE EYE--and occasionally directed music videos, most notably U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)." DEMON SEED was Cammell's most commercial effort, relatively speaking, an adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel in which Julie Christie is held captive and impregnated by a sentient computer system (voiced by Robert Vaughn) created by her scientist husband (Fritz Weaver). Weaver was cast against Cammell's wishes, as the director wanted his friend Marlon Brando, who was vetoed by the studio for being too difficult and too expensive. Cammell and Brando attempted numerous projects over the years, none of which came to fruition in their lifetimes. In 2005, a year after Brando's death, their novel Fan Tan, assembled from a manuscript that the actor had stashed away since 1978, was published. DEMON SEED was a journeyman big-studio gig for Cammell, who needed the money but wasn't happy with the film's lurid marketing and the lack of control over the project (it's the only one of his four films that he didn't script). Cammell is also credited with co-writing the 1979 Brooke Shields pinball movie TILT, which he was originally scheduled to direct but quit over creative differences, namely the casting of Brooke Shields (he wanted Jodie Foster). Keeping busy with music videos in the early '80s, Cammell didn't make another film until WHITE OF THE EYE, shot in early 1986 and given a very limited release by Palisades Entertainment in the spring of 1988, a year after it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. It was the last release of the short-lived Palisades, which was founded in 1987 and released films like ZOMBIE HIGH, Frank Henenlotter's BRAIN DAMAGE, and future ROAD HOUSE director Rowdy Herrington's acclaimed thriller JACK'S BACK. The company was already facing bankruptcy by the time WHITE OF THE EYE was smuggled into a handful of theaters and grossed just $225,000, its cause not helped by a terrible trailer (see below). Palisades' final productions, the Mickey Rourke boxing drama HOMEBOY among them, were eventually released by other distributors and the doomed indie company closed up shop less than two years after it started. Recently resurrected on Blu-ray in the US courtesy of Shout! Factory's "Scream Factory" horror division, WHITE OF THE EYE is represented by the British print licensed from Arrow Video, opening with the Cannon logo, as they secured the UK distribution rights.

Themes of duality, transformation, flip sides of the same coin, and an irreversible descent into all-out madness turn up in PERFORMANCE and WILD SIDE, and WHITE OF THE EYE is no exception. Adapting the 1984 "Margaret Tracy" (a pen name for Andrew Klavan) novel Mrs. White, but very much tailoring it to suit his own style and obsessions, Cammell molds WHITE into a sun-baked, suburban desert-set giallo, with AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN's David Keith as Paul White, a likable stereo/sound system/VCR (yeah, it's the '80s) installer and repairman in Globe, a small town in the outskirts of Tuscon, AZ. Paul makes a good living maintaining and repairing the luxury toys of Globe's upper-class residents, and he and his wife Joan (RAGING BULL Oscar-nominee Cathy Moriarty, who had been offscreen since the 1981 John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd bomb NEIGHBORS) and ten-year-old daughter Danielle (Danielle Smith) are a close and loving family. Flashbacks to ten years earlier--done in a strange, high-contrast "bleaching" look--show that New Yorker Joan was cross-country road-tripping with then-boyfriend Mike (Alan Rosenberg), when she angrily poured a can of soda in his van's 8-track player. Stopping off in Globe to see if it can be repaired, they encounter and befriend Paul, who begins a clandestine fling with Joan prior to Paul and Mike going on a hunting trip where a bizarre episode involving Paul's erratic behavior and over-the-top glee in killing a deer greatly disturbed Mike. Eventually, Mike found out about Paul and Joan and splits town, leaving her behind. In the present, nothing is what it seems as a serial killer has been offing Globe's wealthy and adulterous wives. The local cops are in over their head and call in Tuscon detectives Mendoza (Art Evans) and Ross (Michael Greene), who find some tire tracks at a murder scene are a match for the tires on Paul's truck. Mendoza and Ross, who keeps calling Paul a "non-conformist," are convinced he's the killer, but these educated investigators don't get any cooperation from Globe's useless and not-much-for-fancy-book learnin' sheriff (William G. Schilling), who grouses to his buddy Paul that "They got a 'psychological profile,' whatever the hell that means!" After Mendoza hauls both Paul and Joan in for questioning, philandering Paul's dalliances with recent victim Ann Mason (Alberta Watson) are brought into the open, prompting Joan to question whether her husband is the killer.

Donald Cammell's descents into madness:
James Fox as Chas in PERFORMANCE (above)
and David Keith as Paul White in WHITE OF THE EYE (below)

It's not a spoiler to say that Paul is the killer--it's revealed for certain at roughly the midpoint, in a horrifying scene where Joan discovers Ziploc freezer bags filled with human organs neatly stored in a hidden compartment built into their bathroom vanity. Paul admits he's the killer, driven by the notion that he's "chosen." Joan tries to reconcile the fact that the man she loves is a deranged killer and when she can't, he arms himself to the teeth and straps himself in dynamite (Danielle: "Dad's wearing a bunch of hot dogs!"), pulls his hair back in a samurai bun, applies war paint, and tries to kill his family. There's more to the story, especially with the late-film return of a brain-damaged Mike, who suffered a serious head injury during a jail stint and still has some resentment about Joan leaving him for Paul. Mike's surface function in the story is as a red herring--Cammell briefly flirts with the possibility that Mike is the killer and he's setting Paul up to take the fall--but he's the flip side of Paul. Paul internalizes his sickness and maintains a normal exterior, while the doofy but fundamentally decent Mike is "damaged" on the outside (an early cut of the film included a third man in Joan's life: her boss at her part-time thrift shop job played by John Diehl, who primarily existed to be another red herring, but was cut out of the film entirely by Cannon for the UK, and his scenes were left out for the US release as well; they're included  as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray, minus lost audio but with commentary by Cammell biographer and film historian Sam Umland).

Both Paul and Mike love Joan--Mike showed it by walking away and Paul shows it by trying to kill her if it means being together forever. Keith and Moriarty have never been better in roles that require the gamut of emotions and put them in situations that grow increasingly unpleasant as the film goes on. There's some shades of THE SHINING as a deranged Paul stalks his wife and daughter through the house, but in nearly every other way, WHITE OF THE EYE is a film like no other. It's not the most cohesively-assembled work (allusions to Native American folklore are mostly cosmetic never really go anywhere) and not everything wraps up neat and tidy, but like life, marriage, and relationships, it's messy by design. It's a terrifying thriller, but it plays out like anything but a commercial one, with the off-kilter feeling throughout augmented by hypnotic Steadicam work by cinematographer Larry McConkey and a trippy score composed by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn. Cammell also shows some love to Italian horror in the stunning opening sequence that has the (unknown at that point) killer following a woman into her house and killing her, the mix of blood, broken wine bottles, and thawed meat creating a disturbing and virtuoso display of all manner of splattering red that recalls Dario Argento firing on all cylinders.

The kind of film that stays with you days after seeing it, WHITE OF THE EYE is moody, bleak, and profoundly unsettling, especially one straight-out-of-an-Italian giallo murder, the punchline of which eerily foreshadows Cammell's own alleged final request in his last moments of life. Its almost non-existent release and the fact that nobody saw it did nothing to further his career, and the next several years would find him mired in the expected stalled productions that would never be, including a collaboration with Brando called JERICHO, which would have found the actor cast (improbably at that point in his life) as a retired contract killer who emerges from hiding to wipe out a Colombian drug lord's operation. JERICHO made it as far as pre-production but fell apart in 1988 when the erratic and unpredictable Brando bailed. Looking for some studio gigs to make some quick cash, Cammell was in the running to direct ROBOCOP 2 (eventually directed by Irvin Kershner) and the Rob Lowe thriller BAD INFLUENCE (ultimately made by Curtis Hanson), as well as 3000, a drama about a wealthy business executive who hires a street-tough prostitute for a week. The script for 3000 had been floating around Hollywood for several years before it was completely overhauled and turned into the beloved romantic comedy blockbuster PRETTY WOMAN. It would be another five years before the ill-fated WILD SIDE would get the greenlight from Cannon cover band NuImage, the Avi Lerner-owned outfit best known up to that time as a straight-to-video assembly line specializing in Frank Zagarino action vehicles. Cammell wrongly assumed that a small company like NuImage would leave him alone and let him make the film he wanted to make, but they weren't interested in art-house auteur pieces and recut it into the kind of sleazy, unrated erotic thriller that cluttered video store shelves at the time. Several years after his death, Cammell's director's cut of WILD SIDE would get a festival screening in the UK, but it thus far hasn't seen the light of day in the US outside of the bootleg and torrent circuit. A 2006 biography titled Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side, written by Umland and his wife Rebecca, wasn't widely read but the cineastes who did applauded its cementing of Cammell as a genuine auteur, and it's a tragedy that he only directed four films in 25 years. Cammell's name is synonymous with PERFORMANCE, but the Blu-ray release of WHITE OF THE EYE marks the perfect occasion to rediscover this haunting, forgotten masterpiece.


  1. Actually "Performance" WAS released in a cut Cammell approved of. He got Frank Mazzolla (formerly an actor -- he was one of the gang in "Rebel Without A Cause") to create a new cut that offered shots of Jagger earlier in the proceedings to pacify Warner Bros., and overll edit it so that the violence remained extreme but selective. Mazzolla also edited a version of "Wild Side" in keeping with Cammell's wishes after the filmmaker's suicide. I met him when "White of the Eye" was released as he was handling the publicity himself. Never met a director doing that -- and in a small L.A. screening room no less. A very nice man. And a very complex and troubled one. I think he regarded Death as a kind of drug experience.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David. Cammell was a tragic genius of sorts. "Complex and troubled" would be a perfect description, but it's good to hear he was a nice guy as well. He probably had to promote WHITE OF THE EYE himself...Palisades certainly couldn't do it for him.