Fusing classic horror ingredients with haunting gothic imagery and expressionistic dread, "The Eyes of My Mother" mashes its gorgeous components into a shockingly original tone poem. "Loneliness can do strange things to the mind," says the mother of young Francisca (Olivia Bond) in the opening moments of writer-director Nicolas Pesce's striking black-and-white debut. As Francisca grows up in an isolated country house under depraved circumstances, the movie hovers within her mother's assessment, enacting a nightmarish statement on seclusion with the delicacy of artistic discipline.
Exclusively set on the farm and the adjacent empty road, "The Eyes of My Mother" unfolds over the course of three tense chapters — titled "Mother," "Father" and "Family" — as Francisca matures into a murderous psychopath. But this isn't your average chronicle of a deranged soul. The pastiche lurks around every corner, including the cheesy horror shows and movies piping into Francisca's living room from the television set. But the movie reaches well beyond those roots. Equal parts Ingmar Bergman, Tim Burton and Tobe Hooper, "The Eyes of My Mother" suggests "Eraserhead" meets "Repulsion" by way of "The Addams Family," and yet its story maintains a high degree of unpredictability.
A Spanish-speaking family of ambiguous origin, Francisca's home is invaded during the opening scenes by a grinning lunatic (Will Brill, whose lanky physique owes a debt to Cesare from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"). His abrupt violent act leads the man of the house to imprison him in the barn, where Francisca adopts him as her pet. Years fly by, and as a young woman (now played by the spindly Kika Magalhaes), Francisca finds herself despondent and communing with the ghosts of her dead parents. As a meditation on loss, "The Eyes of My Mother" casts a lyrical spell, with no greater image than an overhead shot of a despondent Francisca joining her father's corpse in the bathtub while wailing for him to wake up.
But he doesn't, and her quest for more company leads to twists involving sexual deviance, frozen body parts and other grisly developments, all captured in lavish chiaroscuro by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein. Shot on film, the scenery alternates between the eerily warm feel of the household interiors and the ominous shadows of the barn. The mesmerizing choreography of the camera offers more surprises than the plot. One extraordinary setup involving an attempted escape is seen entirely through the window of the bedroom; lit by moonlight, it generates a heavier ominous quality than any gory closeup. In fact, much of the violence remains off-screen, as Pesce taps into viewers' imaginations. At once pathetic and terrifying, Francisca is a movie monster for the ages.
While certainly an impressive debut that crams its elegance into an efficient 77 minutes, "The Eyes of My Mother" shows a few rough edges indicative of a newcomer. Some of the abrupt transitions feel like copouts, and the finale arrives a bit too abruptly to match the strength of the suspense leading up to it. The stylistic intensity of the project constantly runs the risk of outshining deeper possibilities, but even when all the cards are on the table, it's a spectacular view. Whereas Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects" generated its scariest bits around a family of maniacs by sympathizing with them, "The Eyes of My Mother" maintains a more powerful degree of intimacy with its subject. Francesca may be a homicidal killer, but that doesn't stop the movie from hovering in her psychological instability.
The first feature produced by members of the Borderline Films collective — directors Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond — "The Eyes of My Mother" is a natural fit for the trio's brand. From "Martha Marcy May Marlene" to "Simon Killer" and this year's "Christine," these filmmakers have fixated on probing the subjective experiences of alienated characters. With "The Eyes of My Mother," Pesce capably takes on that task to create a wondrous tapestry of emotional disorientation. It's not a typical family drama, but Francesca doesn't know that. With few exceptions, the movie's right there with her to the very end.
"The Eyes of My Mother" premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.