If you had a Blockbuster Video membership during the home video market’s conversion from VHS tapes to DVD discs in the late ‘90s, chances are you saw—and passed over—this psychological-slasher romp starring Sylvester Stallone under its DVD reimaging as Eye See You, distributed exclusively on the nationwide chain’s shelves. If you had an extended cable TV package and channel-surfed the Starz and Showtime cable networks, you also saw the film—and probably passed on it as well. It seems everyone passed on it. I passed on it, eventually watching the film a few years after its release as result of the $1.00 DVD cut out bin at my local Dollar Tree.
D-Tox is the least known film of the Stallone cannons—and it’s completely unknown as part of Ron Howard’s production oeuvre. For me, as with Cobra (1986), the production history behind this failed, joint venture between Universal Pictures and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment is more interesting than the actual film itself. But it’s not as interesting as the off-the rails celluloid madness that is Tango & Cash (1989) . . . now that’s a production tale!
At the time of the newly-founded DEJ Productions acquiring the three years shelved D-Tox from Universal Pictures, DEJ was under the same corporate umbrella as the Viacom-owned (then part of the CBS-TV Network; as of this writing, Viacom and CBS have re-merged) Blockbuster Video, Starz and Showtime networks. DEJ was, in fact, formed by Blockbuster executives for the purpose of acquiring low-budget films for exclusive distribution through Blockbuster Video, so as to take advantage of the home video market’s resurgence via the DVD format. Courtesy of their corporate synergy, DEJ could also sell the films they acquired for exclusive Viacom cable television distribution in the U.S.
However, prior to DEJ acquiring the film, Universal Pictures, in a venture with Paramount Studios under their joint UIP corporate umbrella, unceremonious dumped the film into the overseas’ markets under the title D-Tox, with the hopes the film would find an audience. It ended up grossing less than $7,000 in foreign box office receipts. Ouch.
The film that eventually became known as Eye See You on U.S shores is based on Jitter Joint, an obscure (my local library system doesn’t carry a copy of the book or the DVD) 1999 published-novel written by Dallas Times Herald reporter Howard Swindle. Optioned by Sylvester Stallone with assistance from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment for Universal Studios before its publication, the film version—then known under the title Detox—was completed that same year. The end product, shot-on-the-cheap in the economical-advantageous lands of Vancouver, Canada, for $50 million (how much would it have cost if it was shot within U.S borders?), the film failed in its initial test screenings; Universal lost faith in the project and shelved it. As with Stallone’s First Blood using David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood and Cobra using Paula Gosling’s 1985 novel Fair Game as its source materials, D-Tox deviates wildly from its source materials and barely resembles the tale of Jeb Quinlan, the Dallas homicide detective in the pages of Jitter Joint solving killings in a rehab center, as this Kirkus book review shows.
A year after the D-Tox overseas failure, Universal authorized a series of rewrites, reshoots, and title changes—there are screener copies of the film that tested as The Outpost in 2000—and it failed, again, in theater test screenings. By that point, with the film’s budget ballooned to $55 million, and with the director and studio still arguing over creative control of the project, Ron Howard stepped in to personally oversee the film in post-production in the hopes of salvaging it. The end result: Universal permanently shelved the film—and it sat in the vaults for three years. Adding insult to injury: Ron Howard had Imagine Entertainment’s name removed from the film, then Universal removed its logos and references from the film. Then, along with DEJ, Blumhouse Productions (Insidious, Happy Death Day, The Purge) hung its production shingle on the film for its unceremonious DVD release. Once you factor in the film’s P&A against its budget, the film hasn’t come close to, and most likely never will, break even.
So how did Sylvester Stallone end up in this mess?
Stallone planned the Jitter Joint project as his follow up to Cop Land (1997), his second attempt to transition out of the boilerplate, action-driven films of his early career and move into more character-driven, insightful works. The film was the first in a three-picture deal between Stallone and Universal in which the studio would pay him $60 million for the three proposed films. When the Jitter Joint–D-Tox project failed and landed on the shelf, Universal pulled out of the deal, gave Stallone his $20 million for services rendered, and set him on his way.
Then, in the wake of the failure of D-Tox in the overseas markets, Stallone’s follow ups of Get Carter (2000) and Driven (2001), both which managed to receive international theatrical distribution, also failed at the box office. The end result was that his next two films—again, character-driven pieces that eschewed his he-man action persona for distraught, tragic heroes—Avenging Angelo (2002) and Shade (2003)—ended up being dumped into the DVD and VOD markets. Nine years after Cop Land, with his valiant six attempts at reinventing his cinematic image deemed a failure (he’s actually very good in all of them), Sly returned with sequels of the films that made him: Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008). Then he created his star-studded and action-packed, ‘80s retro-romp The Expendables, which he followed with sequels in 2012 and 2014.
As result of the film’s themes of isolation and its claustrophobic settings, reviews for D-Tox compared the film to Aliens (1986)—with a human killer in lieu of an alien one—crossed with David Fincher’s pseudo-Giallo detective thriller, Seven (1995). As result of D-Tox’s snow-bound setting, other reviewers tipped their hats to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Of course, D-Tox is a murder mystery rather than a sci-fi or action film and, to be honest, doesn’t have any of those film’s unique plot twists or on-the-edge-of-your-seat moments. A more accurate description of D-Tox—courtesy of its murder mystery vibe—is that it plays as out as a graphic version of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel Ten Little Indians (made into films in 1965, 1974, and 1989). While some critics may disagree, Christie’s novel and John Wood Campbell Jr.’s Who Goes There (1938; source material for The Thing) share a similar master plot—regarding a grouping of paranoid and backbiting protagonists stranded in a remote location perused by an unseen antagonist—and it’s not far removed from the master plotting of David Fincher’s Aliens 3.
Now, if you’re feeling I Know What You Did Last Summer vibe in the frames of D-Tox—where a group of paranoid and backbiting friends are picked off one-by-one by an unseen killer—that’s because Jim Gillespie directed both films. If you’re an older fan of Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampyre) and a veteran of the video ‘80s, you’ll reference Schizoid (1980), where members of Kinski’s therapy group (without the snowy setting) are murdered by an unknown assailant. Newer film goers might reference Dennis Quaid’s little-seen serial killer romp, Horsemen (2009) with its trouble cop adrift in giallo-inspired, snowy set pieces. Sadly, regardless of its strong giallo-inspired start, D-Tox quickly disintegrates into what many found to be a predictable and pedestrian stalking-slasher pace that, if you removed the gore, you’ll find yourself in an episode of Law and Order: SVU with Olivia Benson being sent to a rehab center and stalked by one of her old collars on a revenge binge.
While D-Tox is not a classic that lends itself to repeat viewings—it has its share of plot gaps, losses of tension, and annoying boilerplate characters doing stupid things (such as looking into door peepholes when a serial killer is on loose and has already killed nine people by drilling out their eyes through door peepholes)—it certainly doesn’t deserve its crushing reviews. Stallone, as he was in Cop Land, is excellent throughout as the alcoholic and failed-suicide attempting F.B.I agent, with his downbeat acting chops matching the film’s mysterious, atmospheric and creepy pace.
Stallone is Jake Malloy, a not-invincible ex-cop who joined the F.B.I as result of his work on a case with a serial killer targeting prostitutes. According to the harassing phone calls made by the serial to authorities to find the bodies, it seems Jack made the serial’s life “difficult” in cleaning up the “prostitution filth” and he cackles: “I see you, but you can’t see me” throughout the film. So, in revenge, the killer changes things up and start targeting cops—and racked up nine kills in six months. Malloy can’t catch him because the serial keeps changing his M.O by picking cops from different precincts with no rhyme or reason. There is, however, one consistent—and very giallo—modus operandi: when he initially claims a victim, the serial rings a victim’s doorbell and, as they look through the door’s peephole, he drills his victim in the eye. Then after drilling out their other eye, he tortures them—he sees them, they can’t see him—and graphically displays their bodies. So, for example, when Malloy’s ex-beat partner ends up with two drill-out sockets, the serial shoves a nightstick down his throat and leaves him swinging in a very Argento-like suspension hogtie from the ceiling for Malloy to see. Then, with the ol’ I’m-calling-you-from-your-house gag, the “Eye Killer” murders Malloy’s just-proposed-to girlfriend—complete with drilled out eye sockets and hanging from the ceiling like a slab of punched up Rocky-meat.
Three months later: Malloy is in an alcoholic tailspin and attempts a slit-wrists suicide with the ol’ if-she-didn’t-meet-me-she’d-still-be-alive, shtick. This leads Malloy’s old F.B.I commander, Chuck Hendricks (Charles Dutton, Aliens 3, natch), to ship him off to a remote rehabilitation clinic “run by ex-police officers for police officers” inside an old Air Force radar outpost that became a military psychiatric hospital before “doctor” Kris Kristofferson bought the abandoned property and turned it into a rehab clinic and named it The Overlook Hotel. Oh, wait, that’s The Shining . . . but let’s cue that freak snowstorm anyway; you know, the one that conveniently downs all the phone lines and strands the ubiquitous, arrogant and paranoid menagerie of double-Y chromosome syndrome-stricken inmates on Fiorina 161 . . . oh, wait, that’s Alien 3 . . . but let’s set loose the unseen killer in the creepy, makeshift military complex anyway; you know, the one that “sees” Malloy’s every move and tracks him to Overlook 161 so, while everyone is detoxing, they start to commit “suicides.” Then Scatman Crothers has a “Shining” moment . . . I mean, Charles Dutton has a “Shining” moment . . . and goes back to the rehab center to see what the hell is going on up there.
At that point, D-Tox degrades into standard chase-action clichés with Malloy running around the underground complex trying to kill the Xenomorph, uh, serial killer, as the bodies pile up (actors Jeffrey Wright, Tom Berenger, Stephen Lang, Robert Prosky, Robert Patrick, Sean Patrick Flanery). It was Malloy’s dispatching crescendo of the killer that was one of the film’s many reshoots; the studio felt the original killing/ending wasn’t a “spectacular enough.” The Eye See You DVD-version of D-Tox includes a bonus vignette package that features eight deleted scenes—but not the original ending. The initial theatrical trailers for D-Tox also include some scenes that were eventually excised from the film’s reimaging as Eye See You.
Regardless of its mix of serial killers and stalk n’ slash plotting missing the John Carpenter Halloween signpost that that it seems the film was going for, if you’re a Stallone fan, you’ll enjoy his work on either version of the film. You can watch the Eye See You trailer from DEJ Productions and the D-Tox trailer from Universal on You Tube—and compare. You can also “see” D-Tox (full movie) on You Tube—with commercials—for free.