The Eyes of My Mother (15)
USA 2016 76 mins Dir: Nicolas Pesce Cast: Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond, Paul Nazak, Will Brill, Kika Magalhaes, Clara Wong, Flora Diaz
Ever wondered what an arthouse version of those US backwoods slashers would look like? Wonder no more. Music video director Nicolas Pesce’s minimalist, intense monochrome feature debut certainly delivers on the strangeness front, with a suitably unsettling electro-acoustic score by Ariel Loh and plenty of agreeably squishy, splattery sound effects to compensate for much of the hack’n’slash taking place offscreen. But lest you fear this will follow the traditional arthouse horror route by being all about mood and tone and rather too light on plot, be reassured that Pesce packs as much grisly incident into these 76 minutes as any mainstream horror you care to mention. Indeed, a cynic might even suspect that this is really a genre film delivered in a fancy-pants art movie wrapper.
Carved up, as it were, into three chapters – Mother, Father and Family – each of which is separated by a huge temporal leap, the film introduces us to sweet little Francisca (Bond) as it comes down heavily in favour of the latter in the great ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. The moppet’s upbringing is certainly unusual, as evidenced by the bloody great severed cow’s head on the dining table which mum (Agostini) uses to teach her about the inner workings of the eye.
We’re never told where or when this ominous slice of rural gothic is supposed to be set, though it’s obviously an isolated cattle farm somewhere in the US at some point over the last 50 years or so. Nor are we informed how a Portuguese eye surgeon came to be living here with her taciturn hubby (Nazak), or why the little girl doesn’t seem to have any friends or go to school. One day, a sinister, boggly-eyed, giggling stranger (Brill) pitches up, makes a crude attempt to befriend little Francisca, and then insinuates his way into the family home while her father is away (very strong shades of The Night of the Hunter here). Unpleasantness ensues, which Francisca is forced both to witness and mop up afterwards.
This clearly has a profound effect on the poor girl. By the time she’s become an achingly lonely adult (Magalhaes), things have taken a turn for the Norman Bates, the fridge is full of unsavoury comestibles, and you really wouldn’t want to be anyone who crosses her path, whether that’s a prospective lesbian lover (Wong) or an unwitting parent (Diaz). And you certainly shouldn’t venture anywhere near the barn.
Those odd people who demand likeable or sympathetic characters to identify with should move right along. There’s nothing for you here. Pesce takes something of a magpie approach to horror tropes, from torture porn to the psycho slasher, which are pressed into service to facilitate a plot that eventually achieves a satisfying symmetry under a patina of studied weirdness. It’s all elegantly shot by Zach Kuperstein, who finds unlikely beauty amid the gore, with compellingly inscrutable performances by both actresses playing Francisca. Anyone with a taste for the strongest of cinematic meat will find this haunts the memory far longer than cookie cutter multiplex horror.