The setting is somewhere between bucolic and bleak: an isolated farm somewhere in America. It's the 1960s, at least judging by the car and the television. Young Francisca is following her mother, who was an eye surgeon in her native Portugal; life on the farm, with her taciturn father working and watching TV, seems to have little besides her mother's spark, to charm her. But she seems happy. 'Loneliness can do strange things to the mind,' her mother tells her, which might seem to encapsulate the whole story, except it's really the easy way out. Then a stranger appears, and in a few moments of violence, Francisca's world is turned inside out.
The Eyes Of My Mother, which was the best of a strong selection of horror films at the London Film Festival last October and is released 24 March, is first-time writer/director Nicholas Pesce's calm but chilling, detailed but mysterious tale of that turning. The stranger fits the setting perfectly, as played by Will Brill he's the personification of the 60s/70s hippie gone bad antagonist, Andy Robinson stepped out of Dirty Harry. He's kept alive after his horrific attack on the mother, but he would rather not be. 'Why would I kill you?' young Francisca asks. 'You're my only friend'.
Part I of the film is titled 'Mother'. Part II is 'Father', in which Francisca is now grown. Part III is 'Family'. The setting doesn't change, only the nature of her family does. The passing of time is indicated only a few times, most notably when Francisca does to a tavern and brings a woman home. We realise that it is an internal world of her construction, but we aren't privy to all the details. We wonder how many other victims there might have been, that we haven't seen. We don't understand what brought her mother there in the first place, but we see some reason why she remains so attached her to dour father. And as we understand the nature of her own world, we are almost drawn to sympathise with her while wondering exactly what her motivation is. Are her actions the result of loneliness? Or would the horror have been inevitable? We are drawn to seek the answers because we are drawn to Francisca, despite the abominations.
This is in no small part due to the performance by Portugese dancer Kika Magalhaes as Francisca (and a young too to Olivia Bond, who is touching as the young Francisca. Magalhaes is both fragile, but dynamic: expressions and movements making up for the lack of dialogue; who else is there, after all, for her to talk with? She commands the screen; she draws you into her own world, and it is an uncomfortable drawing in. The bits of actual horror, visceral and cruel, are for the most part offstage, and they come as relief from her own inner turmoil. When we watch Francisca cleaning up the aftermaths is when the real horror sets in.
The balletic nature of her performance, the quiet, and the beautifully composed scenes, shot in stunning black and white by Zach Kuperstein, reminded me Guy Maddin's silent work, as did the score, in which Ariel Loh's synthesised horror is entwined with classic fado.
The more obvious influence, however, would be our image of the world of Ed Gein, most notably as seen in Psycho, but drawing as well on documentaries about him and even Wisconsin Death Trip, and even the feature film Ed Gein. Think back to the delicacy of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, and you'll see moments of it in Magalhaes' approach. And take almost any scene-setting shot and you'll see that same bleak and horrific America just off the beaten path, just under that small-town surface. The dreamy child-like quality of the narration speaks of Night Of The Hunter. There are elements of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, out of which Will Brill might have stepped. And right from the opening sequence I was reminded of Spirit Of The Beehive.
There are some who will find this film exceedingly arty, too full of reference, too reticent in its gore and perhaps with some justification, too sudden and standard in its finale. It sometimes draws too much on its tropes: 'don't open that barn door'. But it is gripping, engrossing, and captivating: it draws you in the way a great horror film should, with perhaps misplaced sympathy. It is a hugely impressive debut by Pesce, and a performance worthy of wider attention from Magalhaes. Don't miss it.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (USA 2016)
written and directed by Nicholas Pesce
starring Kika Magalhaes
released in UK cinemas 24 March
Note: this review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)