'The Eyes Of My Mother' Is A Bleak And Startling Serial Killer Origin Story [Fantastic Fest Review]

There's a scene in Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre where Leatherface, the deranged serial killer who wears the skin of his victims, runs to the window of his isolated farmhouse. He's just made quick work of two teenagers who wandered onto his property one after another and he has no idea where they came from, what they wanted, and if more are on the way. Through that grotesque flesh-mask, we can see his eyes: confusion and fear and concern for what else this day may bring him. For a few seconds, this monstrous figure is so oddly...human.

The Eyes of the Mother is like a feature-length version of that shot.

Writer/director Nick Pesce has delivered one of the most startling debuts in quite some time, the kind of smart, mean, and truly unique horror movies that those who claim the genre is dead obviously haven't seen. There are shades of the familiar here, as Pesce is obviously indebted to films like Psycho, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and American Psycho, but the tendrils run deeper than that. His punishing tone and patient camera recall the work of Michael Haneke while the brutal violence recalls unforgiving French horror films like Inside and Martyrs. The black-and-white cinematography and sympathy for the central monster can't help but feel reminiscent of classic Universal monster tales. And the merciful 77-minute runtime makes The Eyes of the Mother one with the best horror B-movies, which always knew how to get in and get out as quickly and efficiently as possible (William Castle's great House on Haunted Hill even gets an extended cameo).

If that laundry list of apparent influences feels impossibly divergent, that's because Pesce's vision ultimately does feel like one of a kind. Make every comparison you want, but when the credits roll, it's safe to say that you've never seen anything quite like The Eyes of My Mother.

Pesce wastes no time dropping the audience into the abyss. The film introduces a family of Portuguese immigrants living on an isolated piece of land in rural America. One day, a man with bad intentions arrives on their property and does something awful. The survivors of the encounter have an unconventional response. From there, the film chronicles the life of young Francisca (first played by Oliva Bond and later by Kika Magalhaes) as she grows from a curious young girl to a lonely, deeply sad woman who doesn't understand that maybe, just maybe, her lifestyle may be a little questionable.

Know that The Eyes of My Mother is a serial killer drama, but honestly, you're best off knowing nothing beyond that (although a strong stomach will be necessary).

Although Pesce's lean screenplay, unsettling compositions, and willingness to push against every boundary of human decency is impressive, it is Magalhaes who carries this film on her shoulders. In Francisca, we have one of the more memorable horror characters in recent memory, a genuine psychopath whose every decision is indefensible on every possible moral and ethical level, but whose depression and desperation for human connection is instantly relatable. Forcing an audience to recognize human emotions in a monster is tough and tricky, but Magalhaes is brave enough to fall backwards and Pesce is skilled enough to catch her.

The Eyes of My Mother isn't a crowdpleaser. It's not fun in the traditional sense of the word. It may leave those without a thick skin for cinematic cruelty a little overwhelmed and sickened. But this is an audacious, undeniably impressive film that achieves exactly what it sets out to accomplish. This will not be an easy experience to shake./Film Rating: 8.0 out of 10