Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Eyes Have It

I have a phobia about my eyes. You know all those injury to the eye scenes in Lucio Fulci movies? Yeah? I can't watch those. It squicks me out. And don't even get me started on the scene with the needle in Dead and Buried. Do you know the one? Where the nurse enters the room of a burn victim and inserts a huge needle into his one unbandaged eye? Where the camera holds the shot just long enough to see the needle quiver in the man's socket? That scene sent me from the room, screaming. My own eyes are not the best. I have an astigmatism. I wear glasses. I can see my eyes getting worse as time goes by and the next glasses I get will be progressive lenses. I may, like my grandmother before me, develop cataracts if I live so long. I may end my life blind. This thought terrifies me, and not just because I'm an artist and graphic designer by trade. Some people dream about losing their teeth. I dream of losing my eyes. So I'm an easy mark for movies like Julia's Eyes (2010, directed by Guillem Morales), whose central character is going blind.

Julia's Eyes opens with a blind woman committing suicide in a basement. She climbs onto a chair and puts her head in the noose all the while talking to an unseen man. This is Sara, who has undergone an unsuccessful operation to restore her sight. This comes as a shock to Sara's sister, Julia, who begins to ask questions about Sara's death, spurred on by talk of a boyfriend that Julia never met. Along the way, she discovers something horrible about her own husband, who soon enough winds up with a noose around his own neck. Sara's mysterious boyfriend is the key, but he's a phantom. No one can describe him. No one knows what he looks like. Meanwhile, Julia shares the same degenerative condition. She's going blind, too, and soon finds herself recovering from an operation to restore her own sight. Just like her sister. Julia's caregiver, Ivan, dotes on her, but there's something not quite right about him. Soon, Julia finds herself defending herself from her sister's murderer, who has a thing for blind women. He's such an anonymous man that he's delighted that blind women can sense his presence when no one else can. His obsession is homicidal and soon, Julia is playing a game of cat and mouse, with her own vision, to say nothing of her life, as the stakes.

Julia's Eyes is a better film than Guillem's last film, The Uncertain Guest. It has better actors and a more polished production. It shares with that film an obsession with what is and isn't visible among the things we see every day. There are hidden people in both films. For its part, Julia's Eyes is more plot-heavy. It struggles to arrive where it's going and you can see the strain. Where it's going is the end of Wait Until Dark, the Audrey Hepburn film in which the world champion blind lady ends up in a darkened house with a killer after she's evened the odds by smashing all the light bulbs. That lady forgot the refrigerator light. Julia is more resourceful. She takes out the electricity at the source. She's undone, by a camera flash rather than a refrigerator. The whole edifice of Julia's Eyes' plot seems constructed to provide this set piece. It's a terrific set piece, too, even if it's wholesale larceny on the part of the filmmakers. I mean, it was a great suspense set-up in Wait Until Dark, perhaps the best suspense set piece ever filmed, and it still works fine here at second hand. The movie reminds me, too, of the Michael Apted film, Blink, in which Madeleine Stowe plays a blind woman whose newly transplanted eyes see a murder that she's not sure is real. This film plays the same kinds of games with perception. Unlike those other films, this film relies less on the situations for its shock moments. This tends to fall into horror movie cliches: jump scares with stingers on the soundtrack, for instance, and gloomy cinematography. In its form and in its content, it seems derivative. It doesn't make these tropes uniquely its own, which is a pity.

It's certainly a handsome film. I have no complaints for Óscar Faura, whose camera is cleverly placed to obscure some things and reveal others. I'm particularly fond of the way this film disguises its villain during the third act, when he's right on screen. I have no complaints with Belén Rueda, either, who is as good in this film as she was in The Orphanage (another film, like this one, from Guillermo Del Toro's production company). As a matter of craft, this is as good as they come. This film's flaws are structural rather than presentational. It gets tangled up in an over-complex plot that seems designed more to get to specific plot beats than to relate a natural sequence of events. For all that, it still managed to work me over. Like I say, I'm an easy mark for this sort of thing. As is often the case when a movie teases me with its possibilities, I wish this were better, but, really, this is a giallo at heart, so it's worth keeping in mind that this is more integrated, more coherent, and more fun to watch than most of the other movies in its class.

What rescues Julia's Eyes in the end (literally at the end of the movie) is a human touch that turns at least one of its plot contrivances into something deliriously romantic. Like The Orphanage, the ultimate destination in this film is not necessarily horror--it's horrific enough, don't get me wrong. Rather this is a movie that wends its way into an ending that is more sad than frightening. It's this scene that follows me away from the film more than the murder of a little girl or the ghastly threat of injury to the eyes. It's a grace note that makes me rather forgive the gimmicky plot and the larcenous set pieces, because the last scene in the movie almost earns it all.

Current tally: 31 films.
23 first time viewings.

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