Vision Thing: David DeCoteau’s The Killer Eye (1999)

Matty takes a look (sorry) at the cult auteur’s gleefully gay sci-fi horror romp.

There’s a line a couple of minutes into THE KILLER EYE (1999), when Jonathan Norman’s mad scientist, Dr. Jordan Grady, tells his latest guinea pig, a young street hustler played by Ryan Van Steenis, that he’s about to partake in “an experiment in perception”. It doesn’t seem like much — a small piece of preliminary exposition, perhaps. But within DeCoteau’s oeuvre, such an utterance teems with significance.

“Perception is extremely important in Hollywood,” the filmmaker told Paul Freitag in 1999. “There’s no business other than show business that penalises somebody for working too much.”

DeCoteau was reflecting on his use of pseudonyms.

In the same chat, he offered his thoughts on being a working director as well, explaining that, yep, he’s a slave to the market and tailors his trade to the demands of the audience. However, as mercenary as DeCoteau is, as the ‘90s wore on his art took a distinctly personal turn and the queer elements he’d subversively laced his projects with since the days of Dreamaniac (1986) became louder, prouder, and more brilliantly brazen. DeCoteau’s endgame was, of course, his own boutique outfit, Rapid Heart Pictures: the Hammer House of Horror by way of an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. But before then, DeCoteau was exploring how far he could push the envelope at Full Moon. In the seventeen months between spring ‘98 and Rapid Heart’s formation in winter ‘99, the prolific auteur belted out a staggering eleven movies for Charles Band’s B-studio, going into overdrive with the homoerotic imagery and queer-coded narratives. Voodoo Academy (1999) is the crown jewel of this scintillating wave, and — at the risk of repeating the point ad nauseum these last couple of weeks — Shrieker (1998), Curse of the Puppet Master (1998), and Talisman (1998) are vital steps in DeCoteau’s artistic evolution, refining the rhythms, styles, tones, and themes that the helmer had started to noodle with with his ‘Coming Out Trilogy’: Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), and Absolution: The Journey (1997).

But it’s The Killer Eye that’s the most potent. Not because it’s as good as Voodoo Academy or anything. By — urgh — ‘conventional standards’, it’s a two-outta-five at best — a rung below those noted above and the snazzy Prison of the Dead (2000), and somewhere in the middle of DeCoteau’s remaining millennial Full Moon spread (which also includes Frankenstein Reborn (1998), Alien Arsenal (1999), Witchouse (1999), Totem (1999), and Retro Puppet Master (1999)). What hampers The Killer Eye is a DeCoteauian device that’s since ran roughshod in subsequent fare such as the sprawling 1313 series: that when the narrative peters out, the easiest way to keep it going and make feature length is to have the cast walk around your location a lot. It’s DeCoteau’s worst trait; padding pure and simple, and a total redundancy in a film that’s already barely over an hour with its ten minutes of credits removed. 

And yet… There’s bursts of sublimity to The Killer Eye.

On one hand, DeCoteau’s Band-backed slot-filler is exactly what it is: if it’s an ultra cheap and — double urgh — ‘cheesy’ horror flick you’re seeking, you got it, pal. The Killer Eye delivers on that basic metric. It’s the sort of picture you can stick on, poke fun at, and consign to trash cinema oblivion. But that’s the thing with perception — and it’s wholly fitting that a film which deals with opening the doorway to an extra dimension should have an extra dimension to it.

The belated second production of Full Moon subdivision Pulp Fantasy (a label established to showcase contemporary answers to ‘50s-type B-flicks, itself an offshoot of another subdivision, Amazing Fantasy) following Band’s own Head of the Family (1996) [1], The Killer Eye was built from a script originally written by Full Moon stalwart Neal Marshall Stevens (as ‘Benjamin Carr’). DeCoteau hated Stevens’ script and hired Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There (1991)) to pen a further three drafts with a view to passing the project’s reins to Kanefsky completely. Annoyingly for DeCoteau, Band nixed the suggestion. Instead, DeCoteau go-teau Matthew Jason Walsh was brought in to scale back Kanefsky’s wild n’ wacky prose so the Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) wiz could shoot the film in four twelve hour days. To the shock of no one, that’s exactly what DeCoteau did — and in the process the ruthlessly efficient maestro set an in-house shooting record for Full Moon; equalled the frantic pace of his own previous four-day-wonder, Nightmare Sisters (1988); and laid the groundwork for his speedily lensed Rapid Heart quickies, whose schedules would range from just under a week (Leeches! (2003)) to as little as sixteen hours (2: Voodoo Academy (2012)). 

To that end, there’s a fabulous sense of ‘sod it’ to The Killer Eye. It’s as if DeCoteau cooly accepted that he had to do it and elected to fashion the most DeCoteauish DeCoteau flick possible purely for a lark. True to form, it’s gorgeous to look at. Production designer Hunter Cressall (Prey of the Jaguar (1996), Skeletons) and frequent DeCotographer, Howard Wexler, gift The Killer Eye with a chunky and colourful comic book sheen. Kitschy props and dressing, vibrant lighting and gels, fluid and richly composed camerawork — The Killer Eye is a textured and visually luxurious delight, and, for all its pacing flaws, at least bolsters DeCoteau’s (too seldom acknowledged) status as a tremendous genre stylist.

It’s the humour, though, that’s the film’s greatest asset. The clue is DeCoteau’s nom de plume: hiding from the Director’s Guild and, as teased in his interview with Freitag, wary of fuelling perceptions of being a hack, DeCoteau chose to be credited as the rather cheeky ‘Richard Chasen’ (think about it). With that in mind, The Killer Eye is a giant innuendo; an uproarious practical joke of a picture in the manner of James Whale’s barnstorming Bride of Frankenstein (1935), where everything slapped on screen drips with double meaning and, if you’re hip to it, is so screamingly gay that it has to be a prank at the expense of the more violently heterosexual cis men who rented it. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when an alpha uber-bloke of the “beer, tits and sport!” kind watched The Killer Eye expecting a glimpse of Jacqueline Lovell’s baps… Only to be given the rippled and constantly on show physiques of Roland Martinez and David Oren Ward as a pair of — air quotes — ‘confirmed bachelors’ with a penchant for bisexual threesomes. 

“It’s alright!” the Darrens, Johns, and Robs of the world probably said as they questioned what in the rainbow and feather boa-coated hell they were witnessing. “It’s not gay because these Herculean hunks aren’t touching each other!” 

But if you’re au fait with the bawdier aspects of DeCoteau’s tableaux — the schlong-laden simulacra of Dr. Alien (1988) and Leeches! for example — you’ll get it. After all, the crux of the film’s plot concerns Lovell’s sex-starved vixen, Rita, becoming increasingly pissed off at the amount of time her supposedly frigid hubby, Jonathan Norman’s aforementioned mad doctor, spends in his lab with twinky gigolos and his eponymous one-eyed monster — an appropriately stiff and vascular beastie, designed by the late Mark Williams, that’s as pornographic as it is goofy.       

See [2]

[1] I say that as if it matters: it’s all Full Moon. And as Dave Jay notes in It Came From the Video Aisle!: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio (have I mentioned me and my Schlock Pit compadre, Dave Wain, co-wrote that?), The Killer Eye was ultimately released by yet another sub-subdivision, Cult Video, in January 1999.
[2] If The Killer Eye‘s key art seems familiar, you’re right: it’s a remake of the striking VHS cover for Kent Bateman’s 1971 schlocker, The Headless Eyes, which Charles Band’s Wizard Video put out on tape.

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