Tuesday, December 27, 2016


Eyes of My Mother

Sometimes a screenplay is written from a standpoint of Wouldn't it be weird if we did this? , which is a kick for the screenwriter, even if what they're doing doesn't make sense. When Nicolas Pesce was writing The Eyes of my Mother, he had five or six moments where weirdness trumped common sense. It starts when Little Francisca stands by in shock while her mother is murdered by a stranger who has talked his way into their house. Francisca's father comes home and catches the man in the act, beats him nearly to death, and then locks him in a barn. Francisca, steered by Pesce's whimsy rather than anything realistic, removes the killer's eyes and cuts his vocal cords; Francisca's mother had been a surgeon, so apparently Francisca inherited some keenness with a scalpel. She makes a pet out of her mother's murderer, feeding him dead mice and stroking his back like a prize pig. 

Loneliness is the underlying theme here, and the film uses all sorts of lonely images; we see lonesome highways, lonesome farm houses, and lonely woods, plus many scenes of characters alone and shot from a distance,  all to amplify this sense of isolation and despair. When Francisca grows up, she ventures out to a lesbian bar and brings a woman home. Francisca's loneliness is palpable here. When your only friend is the guy who murdered your mother, and his tongue has been cut out, you'll probably have trouble playing with others. 

Pesce is the film's director, and he shoots this weird tale in a cold black and white. He has a great eye and an instinct for imagery. When Francisca's victim escapes and wanders blindly along the countryside, the shot recalls some hybrid of Night of the Living Dead and Eraserhead. And because Francisca's mother was Portuguese, we hear a lot of Portuguese music on the soundtrack, which is certainly unique for a horror movie. Then again, The Eyes of my Mother is another in the current wave of artsy horror movies. It's a bit like a strange post card you'd find in a roadside antique store, the sort where creepy children wear their Sunday best.

The Eyes of my Mother is being marketed as a sort of mini-masterpiece, with the ad quoting one wag hailing Francisca as a "movie monster for the ages." It's been praised for its lyric quality, and Variety went all gushy about how Pesce provides "complex psychological grounding even to the pic's grisliest setpieces to fend off accusations of exploitation or torture porn." It's been a favorite at film festivals too, which is feint praise; people sit through a lot of dreck at festivals, so anything that is half-way accomplished will stand out. But there's no drama in the movie. Francisca kills her victims, and then stares forlornly into the abyss. Granted, Kiki Magalhaes gives a very fine performance as Francisca; she's especially convincing in a scene where she talks to the corpse of her father, describing her loneliness. Yet, she too crazy to be entirely sympathetic.  Pesce, a very young director, may think he's on to something profound by showing a very disturbed and dangerous girl in a sympathetic light. But once a character cuts out someone's eyes, it's hard to turn her into Cinderella.

The movie has something of the sensibility of a Patrick McGrath novel, the sort where an isolated character ponders life on the outside. That is, before making an awkward attempt to join society. This isn't a bad place for a story to begin, and it gets reviewers all the time.

Pesce, by switching from Grand Guignol horror to melancholy, creates a kind of dirty gauze that viewers can stare into. It's not a dull movie, but it's a sleepy one, a mixture of "artistic" and vague. He creates one nicely executed moment after another, but the characters never seem like human beings; they may as well be mannequins arranged in a museum. 

The Eyes of My Mother makes it possible for reviewers to like a horror film, and for horror fans to say, indeed, there can be an artfulness to this stuff. Magalhaus is so good as Francisca that she's probably responsible for most of the film's success. And it's all so gorgeous that I'm convinced all movies should be shot in black and white by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein. But like too many recent horror movies, it's content to be weird, and wears it's artiness on its sleeve. For some, that will be enough.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


But Bram Stoker Remains a Mystery
by Don Stradley

By creating Dracula, Bram Stoker gave us one of the most enduring characters in all of literature - the bloody Count stands alongside Ebenezer Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, Huck Finn, Dr. Henry Jekyll and, for that matter, any Shakespearean character you'd care to mention, as an immortal icon, a figure who may be killed by a stake through the heart, but lives on and on in the pop culture - yet, Stoker is never mentioned alongside Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson. There are seasons for this, the most obvious being that he simply wasn't in their league as far as putting the words down - he was a ham-handed author, his writing more in line with the cheap melodramas of the day. Also, Stoker never came up with a worthy followup to his most famous creation. Finally, Stoker was a secretive, shadowy figure. If Stoker  was anything like the lonely, sexually conflicted ex-jock depicted in David J. Skal's Something In The Blood, a heroic and thoughtful attempt to uncover the man behind Dracula, it's no wonder we know so little about him. Even Dracula, a big seller in its day, was treated by Stoker as just another side project, a potboiler written to help pay some bills. As Skal suggests, Dracula probably meant less to Stoker than it has come to mean to us.

The young Stoker was a sickly boy who loved fairy tales and the macabre, but grew into a hulking athlete who played rugby at Trinity College. He would go on to became one of Dublin's most popular theater critics, no mean feat at a time when venturing out to a live performance was risky; in those days, customers were usually loaded to the gills and not above brawling in the cheap seats. Stoker once reported on a drunken reveler who got up to dance and immediately puked; the fellow used his own vomit as a kind of lubricant to slide across the floor.

But just as Stoker was establishing himself as a journalist, he chucked aside his blossoming career to become the business manager of actor Henry Irving. It was a peculiar arrangement - Stoker worked like a dog for this egocentric, domineering actor, sometimes writing short stories on the side - though it's believed that Irving's magnetic personality, plus his performances of Faust and Macbeth, provided Stoker with a model for Dracula. At the least, Irving provided Stoker with a charismatic daddy figure, which the aspiring author seemed to crave. Indeed, a fan letter written by Stoker to Walt Whitman bordered on a declaration of love:

"How sweet a thing it is for a strong, healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, brother, and wife to his soul."

Strangely, Stoker is hardly the star of his own biography. He seems third billed behind Irving and Oscar Wilde. They may be essential to the story of Stoker - had Wilde not been scandalized and imprisoned for his gay lifestyle, Skal surmises, Stoker may have incorporated more homosexual themes into Dracula - but the result is that in comparison to Irving and Wilde, Stoker comes off as a dullard. Even Stoker's mother is of more interest - no wilting lily, she once took an ax to a cholera victim trying to break into her home. What Skal counts on is that we'll endure his narrative detours in hopes of learning more about the man who gave us "the greatest sex monster of all time." He teases us with Stoker's alleged secret life, but produces nothing.

Stoker, despite his sexual ambiguities, was a loyal husband and father. Though there's no concrete evidence that he ever acted on his apparent yearning for men, one almost wishes he did. Such a dalliance might have given Skal something to write about besides Wilde's bloated corpse, or Irving's bullish personality. Then again, even if Stoker had fully acknowledged his desires, he'd probably still have that vacant place in his soul that could only be filled by working, working, working.

Skal is a very fine writer and historian - an earlier book, The Monster Show, is a knockout - and he strikes some interesting notes when he speculates that Stoker, as many children do, may have absorbed his mother's anxieties about sex. But Stoker is too elusive, always wriggling out from Skal's grasp. Reading Something In The Blood  is akin to entering a large and ornate crypt, opening a coffin, and finding it empty. Of course, Skal is a good enough storyteller that readers may be satisfied just by his attempt to trace the origin of the vampire in fiction. You may not notice that the man you're supposed to be reading about, the one who never smiled in photographs, the one who may have died from a type of syphilis that brings on paralysis and madness, the one who wrote Dracula, remains unknowable.