Monday, November 14, 2011

Forgotten John Carpenter Double Bill: Eyes of Laura Mars & Black Moon Rising

Now there's actually a double link with these two films; not only were they scripted (or at least co-scripted) by John Carpenter but both star Tommy Lee Jones before he became very famous. I've got to say I've never been wildly interested in Tommy Lee Jones in the past. He's a good actor for sure (see: Academy Award for The Fugitive) but he never really plays the hero in anything. John Carpenter on the other hand is probably my favourite director and I've picked up almost every film he's even been tangentially involved.

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Eyes of Laura Mars was written by a young Carpenter and sold just prior to the success of Halloween. Faye Dunaway stars as the titular character, a controversial photographer noted for current series of photos, all of which involve lurid scenes of staged murder and female nudity. In a classic whodunnit storyline, people closely associated with Laura start being murdered by having their eyes stabbed. Mars would likely be a suspect were it not for the fact she witnessed all the murders. You see she has a psychic connection with the killer and when the murders are taking place, she sees through their eyes.

Tommy Lee Jones plays John Neville the investigating homicide detective assigned to her case. He begins the film not believing her but as the evidence builds that she is getting psychic visions they start working together to uncover the mystery. The suspects include her overbearing but somewhat camp manager Donald (Rene Auberjonois), her streetwise driver Tommy who harbours a criminal past (Brad Dourif), and her abusive ex-husband Michael (Raúl Juliá).

Despite the fact this isn't directed by Carpenter – it's directed by Irvin Kershner – it still very much feels like his work. Carpenter's scripts are all quite minimalist and efficient pieces and so is this. Much like Halloween, the film borrows heavily on the style of Italian giallo thrillers. The idea of seeing through the murderer's eyes but not revealing the identity was perhaps slightly more effective in Halloween.

The acting was pretty good. Other reviewers have noted that Dunaway plays the role quite one-noted. I can't say I've seen her in a lot of stuff before but I thought she played the role of a woman on the verge of mental breakdown pretty well. Considering they nearly cast Barbra Streisand in the lead I think we dodged a bullet. That said Streisand does sing the theme tune that goes over the opening and ending credits but you can fast forward through those.

It's interesting to see a younger less grizzled Tommy Lee Jones. Even at an early age he's perfectly suited to playing detective – over the years he's never been that versitile an actor but as soon as he starts talking in that Texan drawl you sit up an pay attention. The other standout is Brad Dourif in an early role as the shifty driver Tommy who imbues with character with a lot of pathos. Kershner's directing is slow and methodical but it gives the somewhat sillier moments of the film more weight than they deserve.

The ending is something of a love it or hate it affair. I'm not going to give it away but the killer's identity does get revealed along with a slightly iffy reason for their killings. Carpenter has gone on record to say that this wasn't in his original script, he deliberately wanted to keep the killer's identity mysterious (much like Michael Myers) in order to make them more scary.

For me, I was okay with the ending. I've seen worse but it made some sense I guess and didn't ruin the rest of the film. For anyone who enjoyed Halloween this is a decent (but obviously inferior) 70s thriller.

Black Moon Rising (1986)

Black Moon Rising is a similar situation to Eyes, even though it's only based on a John Carpenter story but still very much feels like his film. Tommy Lee Jones plays Quint, a professional thief hired by the FBI to retrieve some politically sensitive tape (god, remember cassette tapes!). He finds it but is then forced to hide the tape, somewhat improbably, in a prototype supercar called the Black Moon (think Knight Rider but more fiberglass). When the Black Moon gets stolen by Nina (Linda Hamilton) she takes it to her boss Robert Vaughn who makes a living from stealing cars. With the car and the tape locked away in his giant office black, the FBI gives Quint 72 hours to find a way in and retrieve them both.

It's said that a lot of Carpenter's films are Westerns in disguise. Assault on Precinct 13 is a version of Rio Bravo with gang members instead of indians, Escape from New York's Snake Plissken is like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, the original script for Big Trouble in Little China was even set in the wild west with Jack Burton having to retrieve his horse rather than his truck! Black Moon Rising is no different, Jones' Quint character is very much your classic anti-hero gun-for-hire assigned to retrieve an object from a seemingly impenetrable fortress.

Unlike Eyes which was a big budget film this was made on the cheap by New World Pictures (a company that seems to keep popping up in these reviews a lot). The directing by Harlan Cokeliss is adequate, the film's a little sluggish early on but the final half hour in which Quint uses an elaborate plan to break in is worth the wait. Considering the film's 100 minutes this really could have done with 10 shaving off somewhere.

Jones really fits well as easy-going, cocksure anti-hero Quint. Reportedly he almost got the part of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York but Carpenter really pushed to get Kurt Russell. Watching this film you can really get a sense how he would have played that part. There's one particular scene where his character gets beat up for what feels like a full five minutes and apparently Jones did nearly all his own stunt work in this film. Hats off.

Linda Hamilton's part is a bit more forgettable, after played Sarah Connor it's hard to see her as anything else. Vaughn always make for a great villain and this is no exception. It's just a shame he didn't get more meaty scenes. In fact one of the most characters the imposing FBI agent played by Bubba Smith (aka Hightower from the Police Academy series) who gets what should be an iconic line “You don't f*** with the Government.”

From the screenshot above you can see the Black Moon car looks a bit ropey, in fact during the escape attempt when it's bashing into barrels and columns I thought it was going to shatter. I'm not sure what it was about the 80s that inspired suped-up vehicles – Knight Rider, Blue Thunder, Street Hawk. I think anyone who enjoyed watching those shows as a kid will get a kick out of this film. It's the kind of film I can imagine watching on a Saturday afternoon - it's definitely not a Saturday evening film.

I'd also recommend the film to anyone who's a fan of John Carpenter – it may only be based on his script but you can really sense it's written by him.


  1. Excellent write-ups. I've got Black Moon Rising on my To Be Watched shelf. I'm psyched to see it now after reading your review.

  2. Yeah, I'll think you'll like Black Moon. Without Lee Jones this wouldn't have been half the film - he really commits to the character which is pretty impressive considering how silly and throwaway the plot is.

  3. A huge Carpenter fan myself. Great reviews on both of these. I remember Black Moon Rising vaguely, so I'll have to check this out again. Sounds fun. And I've never seen Laura Mars, but written by Carpenter and directed by Kirshner sounds like a winner to me!

  4. Absolutely, with the exception of Ghosts of Mars I love pretty much everything Carpenter's done. It's interesting watching some of these films where he's co-scripted the story or produced the film and catching little hints of his influence. Eyes of Laura Mars is pretty good if a little silly at times.

  5. Agree with your review of Laura Mars, I think they resolution though out of nowhere, explains the events, and to be honest, I was surprised. I had no big problems with it.

    Black Moon Rising I saw the other day too, and wasnt that impressed by it. I liked the car chase across L.A., and the ending with the car jumping from one building to the next, but the movie felt a bit too slow for me.

    Still, not a bad little movie and I always mention it next to films like The Wraith, you know, movies from the 80's about cool cars.

  6. The Wraith - wow, completely forgot about that film. Going to have to track it down and watch it again.

    Yeah Black Moon is a bit slow going. Really enjoyed seeing Tommy Lee Jones as an action lead though.

  7. Finally watched Black Moon. Have to say that it was lukewarm at best. The ending was cheesy as all get out, but Jones kept the movie afloat throughout.

  8. Sorry to get you psyched up Mitch. Yeah, it is a pretty cheesy flick. Jones definitely goes above and beyond.

    As a way of making it up to you here's an advert showing how awesome Tommy Lee Jones is...

  9. I reviewed The Wraith a while back, a very very 80's film that at times doesnt make much sense..but damn that car was COOL! Check out my review here: