Cinema Fearité presents 'Short Eyes,' Where Horror Meets Prison
Even when they don't seem to be, prison movies like 'Short Eyes' are horror flicks.
No matter how tame they are, all prison movies are, in a way, horror movies. Even when they’re not based in the supernatural or the paranormal, prison movies deal with issues and emotions that are terrifying, and the loss of freedom coupled with the simmering threat of violence can make for some scary scenarios. Harrowing movies like Bad Boys, Midnight Express, American History X, and even The Butterfly Effect all either contain or are built around horrifying prison experiences. And so is the 1977 jailhouse movie Short Eyes.
Short Eyes is about a white man named Clark Davis (Bruce Davison from Willard) who is sent to a New York City correctional facility that is nicknamed The Tombs. The Tombs is occupied primarily by African American and Hispanic inmates, with just a handful of Caucasian prisoners. Davis is what is known in prison lingo as a “short eyes,” or a child molester. Short Eyes are the lowest of the low in The Tombs, and as soon as the other inmates find out what he’s in for, the introverted and frightened Davis finds himself being threatened and victimized by his peers.
A Puerto Rican inmate named Juan (José Pérez from D.C. Cab) befriends Davis, and while he can’t protect him fully from the violence, he does act as a confidante and a mentor. Davis tells Juan that he does not remember committing the rape for which he is imprisoned, but admits that he has molested other children in his past. Juan figures out that the case against Davis is very weak, and that the pedophile with probably walk. Juan finds himself in an ethical dilemma; does he tell authorities of Davis’ other crimes, putting himself at risk of being considered a snitch by the rest of the jail, or does he let Davis go free when he knows that he will most likely continue to commit more rapes and, therefore, ruin more children’s lives.
Before Short Eyes was a movie, it was a Broadway play by playwright/actor Miguel Pinero (Fort Apache the Bronx), who was incarcerated for armed robbery in Sing Sing when he wrote it. Pinero adapted his own play for the screen, and director Robert M. Young (Extremities) leaned heavily into the stage-like situations and dialogue, letting the actors work their own magic into their characters. The movie was actually shot in a real New York detention facility. The production was given their own floor, but the building was still full of convicts that could be heard shouting and screaming through the walls and ventilation. Because of this, there’s an authenticity to Short Eyes that goes far deeper than the writer’s own experiences in prison.
And the prison scenes do feel authentic. From the caste system that is firmly in place (Hispanics on top, Blacks below, and Whites all the way at the bottom) to the corruption of the uncaring guards, from the sheer boredom of the convicts to the brutal violence that erupts because of it, the whole atmosphere of the movie gives the viewer a front-row seat to a place where they never want to end up otherwise. Davis and Juan propel the film forward with their honest confessions and heart-to-heart talks, but the simmering tension that inevitably erupts into bursts of brutal violence is always on everybody’s mind, whether they’re black, white, or brown. There’s always an underlying threat, and everybody – guards, inmates, and even the viewer – knows it.
Writer Miquel Pinero, who plays an inmate named Go-Go in the film, is not the only actor with a criminal record who appears in Short Eyes. Tito Goya (Marathon Man), who plays Juan’s timid sidekick Julio (whom all of the other inmates call Cupcakes), was arrested and charged with murder a few months after the movie’s premiere (he would die of liver failure while awaiting trial). Young also used a handful of well-behaved convicts from the jail as extras.
Also of note is that Short Eyes is the first screen appearance of Luis Guzman, who would go on to bigger and better things with movies like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as not-so-bigger-and-better movies like Puerto Ricans in Paris. The cast is rounded out by Don Blakely (Shaft’s Big Score!) as a Muslim preacher, Joseph Carberry (Night of the Juggler) as the tough leader of the white inmates, and Nathan George (Serpico) as the antagonistic captain of the black prisoners. But really, the best performances are by Bruce Davison and José Pérez, both of whom go out of their way to break the stereotypical prison thug mold with their sensitive portrayals of their characters.
There are a couple of other familiar faces that pop up in Short Eyes in other capacities. Tex-Mex singer Freddy Fender shows up as an inmate who belts out a soulful tune called “Break It Down” while the rest of the inmates cheer him on in the common area. Not to be out-souled, R&B/funk musician Curtis Mayfield gets in on the act as well, bopping out a song of his own called “Do Do Wap is Strong in Here.” Mayfield also composed the score to the film, so the soundtrack is packed with psychedelic soul and get-down funk. It’s a little awkward to see prisoners suddenly break into song West Side Story-style, but somehow, the musical interludes are a welcome break for the audience from the building pressure of the prison.
Unless they’re directed by Renny Harlin and involve the spirit of a wrongly executed inmate, prison movies usually aren’t considered horror movies, even the ones that are based on Stephen King stories. But some of them should be. Because movies like Short Eyes are scary on a different level.