From the Vault: Eyes of Laura Mars

This essay first appeared, in slightly different form, at my old site, four years ago. Eyes of Laura Mars is a favorite slasher/American giallo-style horror film of mine, so Halloween season feels like the perfect time to revisit it.

As its title indicates, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) is especially concerned with eyes, and specifically how we can each “see” something different when looking at the same thing. Laura Mars, as played by the captivating Faye Dunaway in an impressive performance, is a celebrated yet controversial fashion photographer. Her stunning pictures—according to IMDb inspired by 1970s disco-era fashion photographer Chris Von Wangenheim’s work—play with the intersections of desire and fear, sex and violence. We see how audiences perceive Laura’s work—on the one hand she’s feted by Manhattan’s elite art crowd for her daring and provocative style, while on the other a journalist looking for an interview shouts, “I just want to ask her if she knows how offensive her work is to women.”

When the serial murders begin, Laura actually “sees” the murders as they occur—her eyes become those of the killer’s, and she witnesses her friends and associates gruesome deaths through that lens. Laura’s gifted eyes, used to create cutting-edge photographs of simulated sex and violence, now betray her with the sort of brutal finality only hinted at in her work. She’s terrified. Suddenly her enormous and elegantly decorated apartment starts to feel like a prison. Her fashion shoots take on an ominous tone. It seems that everyone in her life become targets of the killer—including Laura herself.

Eyes of Laura Mars is a visual feast, full of beauty, style, and looming dread—in the way the city itself is shot, or in Laura’s seductively suggestive photography, or in the nightmarish POV shots we glimpse through Laura’s horrified eyes. Even in Laura herself. With her sexy legs glimpsed through her high-slit skirts as she crouches intently to take photographs, or her piercing bedroom eyes always on high alert, she’s the ultimate expression of impossible beauty, something viewers simply cannot look away from. That’s kind of the point here—we’re a culture of voyeurs, easily titillated by physical beauty, sex, and violence. We’re a visually oriented society, yet often we each see, or interpret, things in very different ways. Much is made of the connection between Laura’s art and the murders—not only their striking visual symmetry but also the possibility that her scandalous work had inspired the serial killer’s own dirty work. Ultimately the film posits that this intersection of art and smut, beauty and debasement, is often blurred, and dangerously so, depending on the voyeur’s own perspectives and predilections.

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