Variety has called The Eyes of My Mother ‘an exquisite waking nightmare’, and I must admit that while viewing Nicolas Pesce’s directorial debut, I was reminded of David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman and even 1974’s Deranged.
If you like your horror slow-burning and artfully shot, then Pesce’s American Gothic-fused tale of depravity and dread will draw you into its monochrome-lensed folk horror world, while also setting your nerves on edge with its extreme violence, that’s more often implied than actually shown.
In a remote rural setting, young Portuguese farm-girl Francisca (Olivia Bond) witnesses the horrific murder of her surgeon mother at the hands of a travelling salesman called Charlie (Will Brill). When her father (Paul Nazak) arrives home, he knocks Charlie out and holds him captive in the family’s barn where he removes his eyes and vocal cords.
Psychologically damaged by the traumatic experience, Francisca begins to see Charlie as her only friend and a plaything that she can torture using her mother’s surgical instruments. Fast forward a few years, the adult Francisca (Kika Magalhães) has isolated herself from the real world and constructed her own morbid morality – which leads her to commit her own atrocious acts of murder and dismemberment…
With her quirky Paula Rego-esque features, Kika Magalhães reminded me of the British actress Angela Pleasence, she of the elfin-like countenance who gave weirdly unsettingly performances in films like José Ramón Larraz’s cult horror Symptoms (1974).
Indeed, such is Magalhães’ strong and nuanced performance, that her Francisca belongs in that pantheon of movies featuring women descending into madness, alongside its ice maiden queen, Catherine Deneuve, as seen in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).
For me, its Zach Kuperstein’s monochrome photography that impresses the most – much more so than the story, which can be read as a nature vs nurture debate on the nature of evil – as his lighting and composition evokes the stark and sterile cinema of Ingmar Bergman and true crime films like The Honeymoon Killers (1970) and the Conrad Hall shot In Cold Blood (1967).
There’s also an exploitation vibe going on, recalling Alan Ormsby’s Ed Gein-inspired serial killer thriller Deranged (1974), while also paying homage to William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill featuring Vincent Price – which, along with Strait-Jacket, Psycho and Night of the Hunter, informs the film tonally. And there are other influences in there too, including Polanski and David Lynch, but also the extreme French horror cinema of the 2000s (Marytrs is one that comes to mind).
There are alot of ‘WTF?’ moments that will leave you in shock, but also baffle. Like, how does Francisca support herself when she’s clearly incapable of connecting with the outside world and can’t speak the local lingo? Having the film span decades also leaves questions unanswered, but if you take it that we are experiencing mere fragments of Francisca’s memory then it might help paper over the cracks.
Now, without going into detail, much of what happens in the second half will have you wondering what the hell you have you been watching – but those artfully conceived visuals, Magalhães brutal performance, and the nerve-wracking use of sound are saving graces. Oh, and thanks Pesce for making me never hear Amália Rodrigues the same way again. This is a brilliant, but bewildering debut.
The Eyes of My Mother is out in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from Friday 24 March from Park Circus