“How can we find someone that nobody's ever seen … not even you?”
Forget that Guillermo Del Toro Presents tag emblazoned across the top of this superb Spanish chiller. Like the now-classic The Orphanage from Juan Antonio Bayona, which he was also credited as having produced, this is primarily a case of the acknowledged master of the fantastique lending his name and critical clout to open doors for up and coming talent from his home country. As with that 2007 supernatural shocker, Del Toro is simply bestowing his moniker to someone who's work he trusts and believes in. He has had no creative input other than in an advisory capacity. But there will be people out there who will see his name on the package-art and simply assume that he's made the film. And even if that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the man behind such evocative, character-led fantastical yarns as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, it would be robbing Guillem Morales of the credit he is due.
Julia's Eyes is only Morales' second film, but the director/writer reveals a terrific maturity that states, quite emphatically, that he is another force to be reckoned with when it comes to creepy, psychological thrillers.
“Wait. Be careful. The man who was with your sister had very angry eyes.”
Julia (the great Belen Reuda) is going blind. She and her twin sister, Sara (also played by Reuda) share the same degenerative condition. Sara, however, has already lost her sight completely and is struggling to cope. The story begins with Sara apparently committing suicide by hanging herself in her basement. When Julia and her husband, Isaac (Lluis Homar) discover what has happened, Julia refuses to believe that her sister would simply give up and take her own life. The couple move into Sara's house and Julia begins to unravel the events that led up her sister's death. What does the old blind woman across the way know about it all? Who did Sara meet at the institute for the blind? Who is this mysterious male friend that she had been seen with, and why didn't he show up for her funeral? Julia becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind a set of puzzling circumstances but her enquiries seem to place her in jeopardy. Someone is hovering in the shadows, trailing her. There are strange noises in the house. Gradually, she realises that part of the terrible secret lies closer to home than she could have believed, but as events become ever-more sinister and her anxieties grow stronger, her sight rapidly diminishes, the condition spurred-on and accelerated by the stress she is under. Various encounters with the shadow-man begin to take their toll.
There's only one chance to save her vision. A radical operation that her sister was supposed to have undergone, but if it fails it will leave her permanently blind. Thus, as the situation gets more dangerous and the shocks pile up, poor Julia finding herself embroiled in a series of events that seem to be a cruel repeat of what happened to Sara, it becomes a race against time to solve the enigma and unmask who lies behind it all, before her world goes dark.
There's the trappings of the Giallo here – the mystery man, a kidnapping, baffled coppers and a maze of false trails. But then there's the visual and atmospheric traits of J-horror too. Odd neighbours and a creepy little girl dance on the periphery of Julia's dilemma. There's bizarre goings-on in the underground car-park and the ceaseless impression that there is someone else in the house. Although struggling to aid the woman in any tangible way, it still appears that even the police may know more than they are initially letting on. So, much of the first half is taken up with a winning blend of the supernatural and the dark mystery caper. It's nothing if not ambitious. Morales delivers emotional wallop, sincere character development and plentiful creep-outs with terrific gusto. There's red herrings, multiple suspicions, various clues are unravelled at a cost, and then some genuine terror and violence bully their way in. You can't say that you aren't getting your money's worth. A slow build-up ensures that we are gripped by plight of Julia and then ensnared by the eerie goings-on in a house plagued by power-cuts and ravaged by frequent thunder and rain. Much is made of the dire concept of social “invisibility” and the psychological damage it can bring. The relatively few witnesses who claim to have seen the strange man who was with Sara are unable to properly describe him. “He has no light,” the caretaker of a hotel tells her, “like he isn't there.” The weird, witch-like gaggle of blind women at the institute can sense him, though. They know that he is moving in on Julia, and that he poses a terrible threat. Cleverly, as the heroine's vision diminishes, Morales begins to eliminate other people's faces from the frame, leaving us in a similar realm of never really knowing who we're dealing with. When Julia finally has the operation, she has to wear bandages for a few weeks. To remove them any earlier would cause irreparable damage. This sets up the theme of dislocation, alienation, distrust and sheer vulnerability that presides over the bravura second half of the film. It also enables Morales and Reuda to present us with a thundering masterclass of suspense and cold dread as further twists conspire to trip us up with relentless cruelty.
“He knows how to be a shadow.”
Sadly, Morales overplays his concept with a final act that doesn't know when to end, and a swarm of revelations that don't really add up. It is a shame, because so much of what has gone before has been magnificent. It is an unusual film, even if its premise is somewhat hackneyed and will inevitably remind genre-fans of the Alan Arkin/Audrey Hepburn thriller, Wait Until Dark, from 1967, but the strength of it lies in the performances and that awesomely redolent atmosphere that Spain now seems the best at delivering. Whilst the lead character does some truly unbelievable things, it is Reuda's total sincerity in the role that has you completely believing in Julia at the same time. Anybody else in the part and you would surely switch off at the preposterousness of some of the situations she places herself in, not to mention her skills at getting out of them, but Reuda makes such illogicalities seem incredibly plausible. Julia is a very strong-willed woman. Even when personal tragedies strike at her with brutal calculation, she refuses to cave-in. And I'm sure that her resourcefulness in times of deep distress and danger would seem over-the-top with any other actress tackling them, but then Reuda is commendably and credibly proactive and very physical. No matter how insane the set-piece, we are with her every step of the way because we instinctively know this is what Julia would do when faced with it.
Like it did with Russell Crowe in Gladiator (another Spaniard, eh?), the camera just revolves around Reuda, and you simply cannot take your eyes off her. But unlike most stories that feature a protagonist with some form of disability, we, as viewers, aren't being unduly manipulated and our heartstrings aren't being continually yanked. We don't have that knee-jerk desire to shout out warnings to her or to reach out to help her when she falls. Yes, Julia's vulnerable, but we also know that she can handle herself. Therefore, neither Morales nor his lead actress have any need to resort to the clichés normally associated with such scenarios. Put it this way, your sympathies won't be preyed upon with the conventional mechanics that many filmmakers would, no doubt, employ if they were at the helm of such a scenario.
Guillem Morales was behind the twisty-turny 2006 thriller, The Uninvited Guest, which was similarly convoluted, psychological consternating and a bit of a rug-puller. But whereas he went for a vaguely Hitchcockian stance with that acclaimed though slightly unsatisfying debut “Who's in the house?” feature, he is in a harsher, yet more dream-like world for his second film that is reminiscent more of Argento and the more hypnotic strains of original Asian versions of The Ring and The Grudge and The Eye. Interestingly, both of his movies feature a swing-shift in tone and direction at some crucial point, potentially derailing everything that you'd assumed so far and going off on a different tangent. Some people react quite inhospitably to such devices, but this is the type of narrative deviation that is the province of good foreign horror films and bad American remakes of them. You begin to get the impression that the Spanish, the Italian, the French and the Asian genre crafters have a schizophrenic bent in their creative DNA. Either that or they are so pushed for funding and so brimming with ideas that they inadvertently mesh two films into one. Whatever may lie behind this, they tend to be extremely good at it.
With Julia's Eyes, Morales does go too far though. He seems to enjoy each new twist so much that he cannot resist then pitching another one in to try and top it. In his defence, these shocks are still all very character-based and play to the same general tune, even if some are ultimately very unlikely indeed. He seems to realise that his audience will be genre-savvy enough not to be surprised at the eventual “killer” reveal – indeed his film isn't structured in such a way as to use this as its crucial shock at all – and therefore he thinks this gives him permission to take our breath away with another jaw-dropper soon after. Even if this has caused some criticism from others, I'm prepared to forgive such over-elaboration in view of the considerable vigour with which it is wrought, and the simple cockiness of a filmmaker who is trying to be clever and to dot all the i's and cross all the t's and tie his story up nice and neat. Not all directors working in this field would be half as inclined. But it is true that what was a tight and successfully perplexing mystery descends into the more familiar, if a touch epic, longueurs of the imprisonment and the stalk 'n' slash format.
“If someone feels invisible and is angry at the world … he can be very dangerous.”
The comparisons to Juan Antonio Bayona's excellent, and superior The Orphanage are all-too apparent. Though this is no bad thing, when all said and done.
Both spiral around an emotionally vulnerable and tragically affected woman who clings to suspicions that nobody else seems willing to believe. Both depend on the use of extreme atmosphere, stupendously immersive evocations of sound and vision and a slow-burning sense of ever-growing paranoia. Both feature a strong female character who is compelled to play detective, and both are bookended by a heart-rending, destiny-bound scenario that not only intensifies the drama but is guaranteed to seep into your bones and haunt you for a long time afterwards. They share the same cinematographer and composer as well as some of the same shocks – one involving another street and another speeding vehicle that truly had me leaping out of the seat. And I'd seen the film before at a press screening and knew that it was coming! But it is the presence of the achingly gorgeous Belen Reuda that is the umbilical cord that links these two heart-piercing nightmares and elevates them both to the status of emotional powerhouses.
I really can't get enough of Reuda. She is a simply wonderful actress able to bring warmth, compassion, strong will and determination, terror, tragedy and resilience to her characters with such humanity and soul-searing dedication that she seems to create an aura that lingers with you for a long time after the film has ended. She is also incredibly vibrant and real. Plus, she can run in high-heels without looking silly – and I mean run. After seeing The Orphanage for the first time I was plagued with dreams of her harrowing plight, and that one performance catapulted her to the top of my list of favourite genre-ladies. In fact, right now, I can't think of a better actress in any genre, full stop. When I heard she would be appearing in another emotional chiller I was both elated in the knowledge that she would, once again, deliver something staggeringly empathetic, and deeply disturbed that I would be put through the wringer alongside her … once more. It doesn't hurt that she is so stunning to look at, either. But this is a woman who puts so much into a role. She was amazing in Alejandro Amenabar's highly praised The Sea Inside, but she seems to have found a sort of niche for herself in these devastatingly affecting shockers. It is one thing to convey terror, but to nail the motivations that a character needs to produce in order for us to understand why they keep putting themselves in harm's way, you need someone of a much higher calibre than the genre usually supplies. And Reuda is the reigning Queen of the Heroic Fight Back.
We've all seen normal-sighted stars playing blind people, and very often it doesn't convince, does it? Karl Malden was great as the blind puzzle-solver in Argento's The Cat O' Nine Tails (see separate BD review), as was Patrick Troughton as the harpie-harassed prophet in Jason And The Argonauts (I'm just trying to keep things genre-related here), but I'm afraid that Audrey Hepburn didn't do it for me as the terrorised victim in Wait Until Dark, and nor did Natassja Kinski in Blind Terror. Mia Farrow, on the other hand, was quite convincing in the ghoulish Blind Terror (yes, another one) from 1971. But Reuda is spellbinding here. For some of the time she is partially sighted, seeing things through a swirling, dark-clouded tunnel, and her abilities are still strong, though realistically confused. But then, when she is bandaged-up and totally without sight, her stumbling and struggling around the place with outstretched hands, working from memory and other senses is beyond reproach. She may have the attributes of an embittered Sarah Connor, but this defiance is part of Julia's character … and you never once question it. Morales even creates a splendid switch-around when Julia has to deliberately fake her own blindness, brilliantly subverting and yet celebrating the entire concept of a sighted person playing a blind person … and, well, let's just say that you will believe your eyes! You'll know it when you see it, your knuckles will have just turned white.
“He has no light. Nobody looks at him. He could sneak up on you and ...”
Lluis Homar is great as the long-suffering Isaac. With a world-weary face, and a soft growl that makes you think of tobacco and whisky, he reminds me of Giancarlo Giannini's Mathis from both Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace. The film hinges upon the relationship between him and Julia. Some critics have cited too much sentimentality infused in the core of their life-long promise to one another, but I found it incredibly touching and surprisingly tender. As with The Orphanage, it is the basic loving humanity of the characters involved that enables you to journey with them into the darkness. Without such tangible, though justifiably tired affection, you simply wouldn't care what happens. In American hands, their scenes together would probably be arch and trite and scarred by cliché. Morales and the European sensibilities of his actors refuse to let this happen. As a result, their chemistry is convincingly troubled but solid, and the final scene is both deeply upsetting yet blissfully euphoric.
A fabulously skin-prickling, but also lush and eloquently moving orchestral score from Fernando Velazquez complements Oscar Faura's ravishing visuals. As well as composing the majestic music for The Orphanage, for which he won the Spanish Music Award, Velazquez also supplied the spooky elegance and aggression for Shiver. This marks his third score for a film starring Reuda, along with Oskar Santos' For The Good Of Others – and she certainly seems to bring out the passion and the lyrical pathos in him. Here he weaves between lyrical beauty and sinew-taut suspense with alarming ease, supplying stingers aplenty and memorably pulse-pounding dynamics. Faura's photography is a work of diabolical beauty. Having lensed The Orphanage and Brad Anderson's excellent The Machinist, there is a signature look that he creates. The image is wide and deep, yet inordinately infatuated with shadows and barely glimpsed figures. Lighting is sparse and stylised, the image sort of sickly and green round the gills, like a fever-sweat. And just as with those two previous classics, Julia's Eyes has the permanent look of an impending thunderstorm about it, a heavy and overcast, demoniacally charged appearance that literally puts static in the air. Hair-raising, you could call it.
I've seen a number of new horrors so far this year, and a whole slew of older ones finding a new lease of life on Blu-ray, but Julia's Eyes is the one that has been the most icily atmospheric, hauntingly memorable and genuinely moving. That it is also one of the most frustrating makes me grit my teeth with thoughts of how it could have turned out if Morales hadn't been so self-indulgent with his protracted final act of cat-and-mouse. But, be that as it may, this remains a bravura slice of psychological mayhem that doesn't pander to any of the normal genre manipulations to have us care for the pivotal character. It sets out to tell a crafty and unnerving story and it is certainly successful at that. But Belen Reuda is responsible for making you give a damn about how it all pans-out.
“I can still see the entire universe in your eyes.”
Here's a great triple-bill for you – Brad Anderson's Spanish-shot The Machinist, Bayona's The Orphanage (naturally) and Julia's Eyes. They all feature a similar look and mood, tell chillingly paranoid tales of deep mystery and suspense, and are capped by immensely emotional pay-offs. They all offer unsettling, yet poignant and beautiful scores, and they all boast awesome central performances. Mind you, if you can get through all three of these heart-constricting roller-coasters in one session, you're a better man than me. So, if you can, go and stick The Others on as special treat afterwards!
Julia's Eyes comes highly recommended.
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