Perspective is everything in horror films. The most important decision any scare flick can make is whether it expects the audience to identify with the villain or their victims. To see through the eyes of the prey (as in Rosemary's Baby, or this year's excellent Under the Shadow) requires only that the director make their situation realistically terrifying, so that we imagine we are frightened for our lives, too.
But to assume the eyes of the predator (think of the Dracula movies, or 2013's body snatcher Under the Skin) requires a new set of tools, because the viewpoint challenges us to sympathize with the devil — and to question our own moral compasses in the process. This is a surgical kind of filmmaking that is often unpleasant: giving us eyes we'd rather not have, because we shudder to think what we'll see through them.
The exquisite new horror film The Eyes of My Mother, from first-time writer-director Nicolas Pesce, is all about showing you what you'd rather not see. This is true on a visceral level, with implied or explicit imagery of human organs being carved out of still-living bodies like meat before slaughter. (Yes, the squeamish should definitely look away while they still can.) But it's also true on a psychological level, as the film tracks one young woman's evolution from innocent bystander to a horrific crime into the perpetrator of like-minded ones. Perhaps the depravity has always existed within her, but that's for her to know and us to grapple with.
At a sleek 'n' bleak 76 minutes, divided into three chapters, there's precious little time to waste. We first meet Francisca, the daughter of an American farmer and a Portuguese doctor, as a young girl (Olivia Bond) playing around her remote family farmhouse. (Although the story is set in the modern day, this house is a relic of a distant era, with 50-year-old appliances and floral-patterned wallpaper.) Francisca's doctor mother (Diana Agostini) is teaching her about the human eye by carving up a cow's, and holds up each part for her to inspect. "Everything we see passes through this," she explains.
From this compassionate killing comes a decidedly uncompassionate one, as a sinister stranger (Will Brill) coolly walks into the family home and murders Mommy Dearest. When Francisca's nearly-mute father (Paul Nazak) discovers the crime, he betrays no emotion but ties the man up in their barn, allowing the young girl — who seems to never leave the family stead — to lovingly bond with the captive even as she gets out a knife and practices what her mother taught her. (All of this happens without much explanation; dialogue in the film is sparse, and the little there is may make you wish for even less.)