In an early episode of the seminal 1950s family sitcom Father Knows Best (Season 2, Episode 13), family matriarch Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt) has a serendipitous string of good luck. Entirely inexplicably, Margaret develops the ephemeral ability to sense things before they happen. Hijinks ensure, naturally, with the entire family beaming with curiosity about Margaret’s newfound powers. It’s all TV-G fun and games until Margaret’s final premonition: the bridge her husband will be crossing en route to a meeting the following evening is going to collapse, killing him.
It’s certainly dark for a wholesome half-hour family comedy, and more worrisome is the resultant anguish Margaret feels when Jim (Robert Young)— her husband — gaslights her into thinking she’s lost her mind. You see, Margaret is a silly woman living in an eerie dreamland that only the bored noodling of a domesticated woman could conceive. Jim doesn’t believe her and almost directly tempts fate to prove his wife wrong — he’s going to cross the bridge and he’s going to be fine. Only, he doesn’t cross the bridge. His meeting is postponed shortly before he’s set to leave, and he relishes in the delusions of his wife until late that evening when their son returns home to announce his baseball game was canceled. The competing team was stranded after a cloudburst washed away the bridge and a mile of Hillsborough Road, the same road Jim was set to travel on.
That episode aired twenty-three years before Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and the message is no less potent in either: Women have a unique capacity to see violence and danger in the world around them, and even in 2020, no one is willing to believe them.
Eyes of Laura Mars follows the titular Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), a fashion photographer whose beat du jour is stylized violence, her portfolio inspired by true crime and graphic murders. Shortly after the death of her editor, Laura realizes she has been having real-time visions from the POV of the killer, and it’s up to her to figure out both why it’s happening and who the killer is before it’s too late.
A frequent complaint lodged against the film, whose first draft was written by none other than John Carpenter, is that the reason behind Laura’s visions is never explained. Narratively, that’s fair, but within the hegemonic context of what it meant to be a woman in 1978, and what it still means to be a woman now, the reason is clear. Laura sees the violence in her city and her country writ large. She sees first-hand how the grip of the patriarchy violently kills (with phallic imagery) her closest friends and models — all women save for Donald Phelps (René Auberjonois) who is curiously killed while dressed in Laura’s clothes.
Carol Clover, in her formative text Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993), averred that gender in the slasher film (and to be clear, Eyes of Laura Mars is a slasher film) is often polarized by viewers, and part of the interrogation of any horror text is to identify those poles and evaluate the space between, the scope of active and passive, masculine and feminine. Strictly speaking, horror is inherently gendered, and as a slasher film, Laura Mars is the congenital “final girl,” the lone heroine left alive to face down the killer and rise triumphantly.
There’s cleverness in the casting, Giallo sensibilities, and setting (Laura’s bedroom is somewhere Joan Crawford would feel right at home in), but the most potent cleverness, the cleverness that imbues the film with tinges of relevancy even forty-two years later, is its unalloyed notion that the world writ large is unwilling to believe what women have seen with their very own eyes. Women who experience violence of any kind are at greater risk of aversive physical and psychological symptoms such as severe physical pain and posttraumatic stress disorder. Moreover, women who either don’t report these crimes or aren’t believed, are at considerable risk for developing cognitive and behavioral disorders, disorders that are much harder to treat effectively without resolving the root of the problem.
The root of the problem is difficult to resolve, though, because, like Margaret Anderson and Laura Mars, no one is willing to believe in the violence in the first place. There is a dominant cultural force that insulates those in power from this violence, those whose voices command considerable systemic weight, and as a result, they are considerably less inclined to believe it’s happened.
Laura Mars tells everyone she can about her visions, and not one single person — her best friends, the police, or even her ex-husband — believes her. Only the killer believes her, suggesting some insidious relationship between victim and perpetrator; the violence will only ever be known and felt to them. Eyes of Laura Mars is certainly not the strongest slasher entry, nor is it even one of the stronger American Giallo outputs, but it is an effectual and well-crafted reminder of the unique perspective women have of the world. It is a perspective grounded in truth, both personal and universal, and it both demands and deserves to be not only heard but seen. Ideally, it would be seen through the eyes of Laura Mars and all the women just like her.
Chad Collins graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2019 with his Master of Arts. He works in behavioral health and has been a horror fan since birth. His favorites include Scream, Halloween, Alien, and tawdry ’80s slasher films. You can find him on Twitter at @chaddiscollins.
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