Umberto Lenzi's EYEBALL has a reputation for being one of the best mid-1970s gialli. For the life of me, I have no idea why that is. I had heard about this film well before I ever saw it and its reputation was that it was a really rough piece of work, gratuitously violent and nasty on the level of Fulci's THE NEW YORK RIPPER. When I finally saw the film, I was a bit let down by how humdrum the whole thing felt. It wasn't especially violent or visually interesting. It felt like someone transplanted Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None to the touristy highlights of Spain, cranked up the red gelled lights and set the film on autopilot. It had very little impact on me and I began to wonder if the film had garnered that reputation simply because few people had ever seen it.
EYEBALL leaves Italy behind and centers itself in Spain, mainly Barcelona, as a group of American tourists are slowly and methodically picked off by a red raincoat wearing killer with a penchant for plucking out the victim's left eyeball. We have close to a dozen people to keep track of. There's Mark, an American businessman whose wife is suffering from a nervous breakdown, and Paulette, his secretary and mistress; Lisa, a photographer, and her lesbian companion/model, Naiba; Mr. Hamilton and his fetching granddaughter, Jenny; the slightly pervy Robbie and his busybody wife, Gail; Mr. and Mrs. Randall and their daughter, the tour guide, Martinez, and a kindly (though creepy) Reverend. As the group bounces their way from tourist trap to tourist trap, the killer strikes, slashing yet another female member of the group (and one unfortunate girl who was just feeding some pigs) to death. Eventually, an almost-read-to-retire cop, Inspector Tudela, and his partner take up the case and begin trying to sort out alibis and motives.
Meanwhile, Mark receives word that his wife is in Barcelona. This is especially troubling for Mark, not simply because his wife may stumble upon him and Paulette, but because Mark remembers a similar murder that occurred near his hometown. The morning of that murder, Mark found his wife unconscious in the yard, a bloodstained dagger in her hand. Worried for his wife, Mark hid the dagger and never spoke of the incident (a bum was convicted of the crime by the local police). But now, strange things are happening. Mark finds the same dagger in his hotel room, wet with blood. A picture of Mark and his wife turns up. Unwilling to turn this information over to the police, Mark decides to stop her himself. But is his wife really the person committing the murders? Or is someone in their group responsible for all this carnage?
The biggest problem with EYEBALL is its repetitious narrative. The sequence of events goes like this: the group moves to a new location, a girl gets slaughtered, all the prime suspects rush into frame, one of them does something suspicious, the police show up, the suspicious behavior is explained, a new bit of information gets dropped, the group goes about like nothing strange is going on until REPEAT CYCLE. We are allowed outside of this cycle only when following Mark in his attempts to track down his wife. Only Mark is pretty far from the hero needed for a film like this. Mark repeatedly fails to mention any of his own suspicions to the police, even when he is marked as Suspect Number One. If Mark were making any headway in his personal mission, I'd be fine with that, but my patience ran out fairly quickly and Mark, the films hero, quickly became Mark, the self-centered dick. Other than that, there is surprisingly little going on in EYEBALL (and may I mention that I absolutely hate the US retitling of GATTI ROSSI IN UN LABIRINTO DI VETRO, which translates to CATS IN A MAZE OF RED GLASS, to the exploitation sounding title of EYEBALL?) so those looking for an immersive giallo along the lines of Lenzi's earlier PARANOIA films with Carroll Baker are going to be sorely disappointed.
The giallo is a kind of film that works when it works and fails miserably when it doesn't (obviously). There are very few gialli that manage to be "just OK". They are usually great or awful. EYEBALL contains enough nonsense elements - a ludicrous motive, women standing still while their attacker slowly approaches, etc - that it should just collapse entirely. It is most certainly flawed, almost approaching unintentional comedy at times. When the final reveal pivots on a photograph of a moment that no one wouldn't have noticed when it happened - the killer appears in full gear, including dagger, in broad daylight in a crowded location - you know something's wrong. EYEBALL requires great logical leaps and more than just the usual suspension of disbelief to enjoy completely. Perhaps it is just my short legs but I couldn't leap far enough to get over the fuzzy logic.
EYEBALL is perhaps Lenzi's weakest giallo film but it does, despite all my problems with it, manage to be entertaining in a low rent kind of way. While it never goes full-tilt slasher, it has a much more American feel to it than most of the "cross-over" gialli do. Aside from TORSO, you probably won't find a more suitable giallo for fans of American horror cinema. There are a few moments when the film feels like it is going to take off and develop into a full-on giallo nightmare, only to stay stuck in mediocre horror territory. The script is laughable but no more than most and the performances stay true to the kind of stereotypical characterizations we would expect to find in the giallo film as it ground down to a halt. The whole film feels fairly predictable (even though the final reveal will definitely surprise non-giallo watchers) and Lenzi takes absolutely no risks with the material. It feels safe and non-threatening, good for a laugh but not much else.