*. I don’t think black-and-white has to signal an art-house film. Or even an art-house horror film. Though I guess there’s some of that going on in recent psychohorrors like Darling, A Field in England, and The Lighthouse. But in fact what writer-director Nicolas Pesce was going for here was more a sort of homage or love letter to the films of William Castle (that’s The House on Haunted Hill playing on TV). Personally, I also have trouble seeing this connection, or any relation to The Night of the Hunter, but it at least signifies a place he’s coming from. And that’s not an art house.
*. What really seems to be going on here is a hybrid of American gothic (and I’m going back to Grant Wood here, because doesn’t Francisca’s dad look a bit familiar?) and J-horror.
*. It’s odd that in the interview included with the DVD Pesce never mentions J-horror. I’ve had occasion to remark before on how directors rarely refer to their most obvious sources and inspirations on DVD commentary tracks so maybe some of that is going on. But I don’t see why it would be a connection that Pesce would want to dodge. Francisca with her pets is obviously patterned off of Aoyama in Audition, and Pesce’s next movie would be an adaptation of another Ryu Murakami novel, Piercing. Then he’d be put to work on The Grudge. So clearly J-horror was in his bloodstream.
*. Even without these direct links I think the connection would still be there in the deadly female and the mix of extreme horror with a visual reticence that doesn’t actually show a lot of violence. The closest we see to someone being killed is when Charlie gets it, and even then the camera is focuses somewhere else and we just hear the stabbing sounds.
*. Then there is the American gothic. Meaning that once again we’re off the beaten track. Not-so-specifically, rural America. A farm. God help us. And on that farm there was a family. And family, as we all know, is hell. But once Francisca’s family is gone there’s only loneliness, leaving her forced to kill for company.
*. This leads to what I think is the most interesting (I can’t quite say original) thing about The Eyes of My Mother. It’s a brutal horror movie where the monster is the protagonist. Meaning that we sympathize with her (at least at the beginning) and we see the horror from her perspective. We’re used to being in the shoes of the girl the nearly (but how near?) feral Francisca brings home from the bar and who only too late realizes the trouble she’s in. Or the mom who picks Francisca up on the road. Or when Antonio sees his mother in the barn we recognize it as the usual “child disobeys orders not to go somewhere and sees a monster” routine, only tragically transformed.
*. That note of tragedy or sadness is also something different, and uncomfortable. Francisca, perversely, is cruel to be kind. This is one of the things that makes the movie different from the usual round of torture porn (though that label was duly applied to it by at least one critic). At the same time it’s what makes it all the harder to take.
*. The business with the cow’s head on the kitchen table was the Jamesian germ of the story and apparently taken from life. Pesce’s mother is an eye surgeon and did something similar with him when he was a kid. Fair enough, but I’m not sure how a Portuguese eye surgeon ended up a housewife on Cold Comfort Farm in America. That seemed a bit surreal.
*. To be honest, I’m feeling a bit burned out on the appalling bleakness and cruelty of today’s horror. In his interview Pesce talks about how having people walk out on the film was both “awesome” and “a compliment.” So I guess that’s the reaction he was going for. He also says it was a movie targeted at a very narrow audience. The fact that I was curious enough to watch it shows, I guess, that I’m close to that audience. Which doesn’t make me proud.
*. Oh well. Well done if you can (or want to) take it. The story does have the air of a creepy folk tale (and we know how creepy folk tales are). The horrors are effectively spaced out, and they grow in intensity. Some of the visuals are quite haunting, like the meal-sized body parts being stuck in the fridge. I like how much is implied, as with the incest between Francisca and her dad, instead of being made explicit. But at the end I felt left on another cold hill’s side. Maybe horror’s just not my thing anymore. I worry about kids who grow up on this stuff.