Extreme Indie Horror: “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016)
Thank Cthulhu that it’s the end of the academic year. I’m free to catch up on the growing list of movies in my personal watchlist. It’s one of the ironies of being a cinema studies student that there’s not enough time to watch many movies outside of those on the syllabus. So I’m shifting to less reading about and more actual viewing of films.
One of my catch-up strategies aims to shrink my growing Netflix DVD queue. I’m watching queued films that are also currently streaming on the Netflix platform. Using this hack, I came across The Eyes of My Mother (2016, dir. Nicolas Pesce). My friends Billy Crash and Jonny Numb recently devoted an entire episode of their podcast The Last Knock to this film. So it was an easy viewing choice. I expected good things . . . And I wasn’t disappointed.
Having written three papers over the past academic year on the New French Extremity (NFE), I am impressed by the extreme yet artistic nature of this American indie horror film. Like the NFE (which expanded into a general European trend towards the extreme in horror filmmaking), The Eyes of My Mother combines an edgy, boundary-pushing story with painstaking attention to form and execution in filmmaking.
In this debut feature film, director Pesce presents both story and form through understatement. This choice makes the movie’s extreme aspects more convincing than if he had transformed them into a spectacle (as in contemporary Hollywood horror). Told in a matter-of-fact style through skillful editing (by Pesce and Connor Sullivan) of monochrome cinematography (by Zach Kuperstein), the story involves all kinds of transgressive horror topics.
The opening of this short feature (with a total runtime of 77 minutes) involves a trucker coming upon a woman walking down the middle of the road. When she collapses, he stops his rig to assist her. We’re not able to see exactly what is wrong with her because we see her she only through extreme long shots. But since this is the opening sequence, we know it’s going to end up being a significant event. Still, we’re thrown off guard by a cut to a peaceful, bucolic setting — a farm in the middle of nowhere (shot in upstate New York).
Then we meet a mother (Diana Agostini) who was an eye surgeon in her home country of Portugal. She dissects a cow’s eye for the educational benefit of her cute young daughter Francisca (Olivia Bond). Shortly after that, a serial murderer calls on the family while Francisca’s father is out. Masquerading as a traveling salesman, Charlie (Will Brill) cons his way into the family farmhouse as his intrusive questions reveal his true intentions.
When he returns home, Francisca’s father (Paul Nazak) catches Charlie in the farmhouse’s bathroom, where he’s chopping up her mother in the bathtub. With blunted emotion but intense action, the father beats and mutilates Charlie (off-screen — we see only the results), yet keeps him alive as a prisoner, bound and chained in the family barn. In an even more bizarre turn-of-events, Francisca becomes responsible for managing Charlie’s captivity. And this is only the first act.
As she grows up, she becomes an over-controlled young woman (played by Kika Magalhães) whose methodical nature hides yet enables her growing enjoyment of killing. As viewers, we’ve been transported into an uncanny parallel universe — it looks the same as the ‘real’ world, but its happenings don’t follow our expectations based on the ‘rules’ of the ‘normal’ world. Still, as the plot unfolds, it all makes sense through a kind of twisted logic. In the process, we’re treated to sequences that imply (but do not show) straight and queer sex, torture, cannibalism, incest, and necrophilia. There are also straightforward scenes that presenting gruesome depictions of slasher-style killings.
Yet the film doesn’t devolve into torture porn or become a gorefest for the sake of the shock value. One reason it doesn’t is in its formal execution. Sometimes Pesce doesn’t show a killing on-screen. Instead, he builds suspense beforehand to the point of no return, then cuts to Francisca calmly cleaning up the aftermath. Moreover, there are no shaky, handheld POV shots or jump scares in this film. Instead, many sequences involve shots (and the framing and angles within these shots) that are unconventional for a horror movie. These include extreme long shots, top shots, and extreme low-angle shots. These add drama and mystery to an otherwise bleak and horrific world.
Another other reason is the film’s characters. Outstanding performances by the cast flesh out personalities that are — except for Kimiko (Clara Wong) — quite unconventional. In a sequence of high suspense, Kimiko realizes all too late that Francisca’s idea of intimacy bears no resemblance to her own. As Francisca, Kika Magalhães embodies a young woman who is completely oblivious to her homicidal psychosis. The blood lust of serial killer Charlie — also entirely convincing as played by Will Brill — pales by comparison. Francisca is much more subtle and controlled than Charlie, which makes her quite strong as a horror monster. And, despite her monstrosity, she exudes a kind of childlike innocence that makes her fascinating.
After viewing the film, it’s not difficult to understand why it premiered last year at Sundance, where Magnolia Pictures picked it up for distribution through its Magnet Releasing subsidiary. It’s also not surprising that this well-done feature is the work of contemporary film-school brats. It’s clear that they’re not constrained by convention and are willing to devote themselves to quality innovation. I want to see more from these filmmakers — and from the actors with whom they worked.