One of the most basic facts of horror writing is that real terror requires isolation. It’s nearly impossible to keep characters in scary situations if there’s easy help right around the corner, or plenty of sympathetic people to consult about the problem. Horror stories find different ways to isolate the victims, by setting stories in desolate, out-of-the-way places (like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Psycho), or by putting characters in situations where other people won’t believe them, or just can’t help. (The Babadook and It Follows are terrific recent examples.)
Nicolas Pesce’s gory writing and directing debut Eyes of My Mother goes all-in on the idea of a remote location where horrible things can happen, and no one will ever know. But Pesce does a lot more with the idea of isolation — emotional, physical, and even moral. His monstrous protagonist murders and mutilates because she’s fighting off loneliness, which makes her a tragic, sympathetic figure, at least between atrocities. But she’s also lived so much of her life in isolation that she has no idea her actions are abnormal. Raised on tragedy and aberrant behavior, she imitates and extrapolates from it. She’s casual, even innocent, in the way she carves up her victims and packages them in her refrigerator. Even in the film’s creepiest shock moments, she’s placid and pleasant, which just makes her more disturbing.
As the film opens, Francisca is a child living with her parents on a rural farm. Her mother (Diana Agostini) is a former surgeon who demonstrates dissection for her little girl as casual entertainment; her father (Paul Nazak) is a quiet, unexpressive man who treats his wife and daughter as none of his business. Then a grinning stranger named Charlie (Will Brill) arrives and demands access to the house. Pesce only hints at what follows, but it leaves Francisca without a mother, and Charlie mutilated and chained in the barn. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” he asks Francisca humbly. “Why would I?” she says. “You’re my only friend.”
Much of the horror that follows from that exchange is implied rather than spelled out, which is a large part of what makes Pesce’s debut memorable. He includes plenty of suggestive sound effects, bloody hands, and lingering shots of damaged bodies. But again and again, he steers clear of showing the moment of impact on-screen, and he leaves the worst to the audience’s imagination. That gimmick was partially designed to make the most of the film’s obvious low budget. (Eyes was largely shot in one location, in black and white, with a small cast, over 18 days.) But it also gives Eyes a compellingly nerve-racking sense that no matter how bad things get on-screen — and given the film’s obsession with eye mutilation and necrophilia, it gets pretty bad — there are even worse things happening offscreen, especially during the long time elapses between some key scenes.
Those time elapses are major problems for the story, which doesn’t entirely hold together, and leaves out so much information, especially in the abrupt ending, that it becomes distracting. The film often seems more like a series of vignettes than a narrative, and its dependence on shock value gets tiring. But Pesce balances out the story’s baldness with a slyly suggestive combination of extreme violence and subtler psychological manipulation. Like so many other recent memorable horror debuts — The Witch and The Babadook in particular — Eyes of My Mother prioritizes shivery moods and beautifully composed images above strict narrative logic, and like both those films, it builds extreme terror out of horror’s most valuable asset: the fear of the unknown, particularly the question of what could possibly happen next under such bizarre circumstances.
And also like those two debuts, Eyes of My Mother turns on a few key performances. Kika Magalhaes makes the movie as the adult Francisca. Her placid, beautiful face and her deliberately unnatural body language suggest a woman living a complicated internal life, without any external sense of herself. She’s as removed from the world as the children in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, and as prone to startling behavior, with no sense of conscience or remorse. And she brings across her separation from society in subtle ways. When Francisca invites someone into her home, she stands with her arms stiffly at her sides, turned outward so her wrists face forward; it’s such a strikingly weird stance, compared to her guest’s more normal body language, that it defines Francisca’s isolation from normal society more than it would if she gibbered and raved. When Francisca listens to music and dances on her own, she moves as though she’d never seen anyone dance before, and had to create the idea of dance from scratch. Her mixture of physical awkwardness and confidence, her haunting inhumanity and the film’s stillness around her, all strongly recall Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
So does the film’s eerie, echoing score, and its stylish black-and-white cinematography. Pesce and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein underline the film’s uncanniness by putting cameras in odd places: mounted on a body, on a tarp as a body is being dragged away, on a drone overlooking a house or a highway. And they shoot in such high contrast that their compositions suggest Ingmar Berman making arty splatter films. Eyes of My Mother is a problematic film that lurches from one ugly image to the next without making enough sense of the connections. And Pesce doesn’t vary the mood enough to create a sense of rising action, or to give the audience any catharsis through the violence. But he also creates some extreme beauty out of ugliness, and he builds amazing tension out of quiet moments and simple movement. This is a film about a young girl exposed to unimaginable tragedy, and dealing with it in unimaginable ways. She’s isolated from the moment Pesce introduces her to the audience, and his promising debut is more than capable of isolating everyone in the audience, by dragging them, willing or not, into her unsettling world.
Eyes of My Mother is currently in theaters in limited release, and simultaneously available on VOD platforms.