Julia's Eyes Review
As if there aren’t enough preconceptions to contend with and adhere to when working in the horror genre, the second feature from Guillem Morales also comes with the additional expectations raised in it being the latest in a long line of modern Spanish-language horror/thriller filmmaking that stems from Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis (1996), but it also has the additional baggage of bearing the introduction “Guillermo del Toro presents”, a label that can certainly open international doors, but also set certain standards that the film will undoubtedly be judged by. In purely filmmaking terms and as a technical exercise in what we have come to expect from Spanish horror, Julia’s Eyes acquits itself well, fully living up to all those expectations if not quite surpassing them into being something wholly distinct or original.
Originality isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for genre filmmaking – the word generic comes from the same source – and particularly in horror-suspense filmmaking, where the form is dominated by a few acknowledged masters. Guillem Morales clearly knows his references and Julia’s Eyes accordingly shows a director well-versed in the psycho-sexual references of Hitchcock to give the film some psychological motivation and depth, while the fetishisation of scantily-dressed females, provocatively photographed as they are being assaulted, assailed and abused by men with dark, violent intentions, has the requisite melodramatic edge of the Giallo school. As far as Julia’s Eyes is concerned however, the main source of its horror comes from the oldest horror convention in the book – and is no less effective for it – which is fear of the dark.
Suffering from a degenerative eye disease from which there is no known cure, Julia’s whole world is about to be plunged into darkness and, although she tries not to show it, the idea and the rapidity with which her sight is deteriorating terrifies her. What contributes to her concerns is the fact that her twin sister Sara also suffered from the same illness and has apparently taken her own life rather than live in the isolation of blindness. Julia however cannot believe that her sister would kill herself and, speaking to neighbours, friends and acquaintances – a number that worryingly seems to have dwindled as blindness withdrew Sara from the world outside – she is convinced that her death may be connected to a mysterious boyfriend who was with her in her final days, who no-one can seem to be able to completely remember or describe. But, in typically suspense-thriller mode, who can she get to believe her wild ideas, particularly when her own sense of proportion seems to be diminishing with her sight? And will her sight hold out long enough for her to solve the mystery?
Although it's nothing new, the best thing about Julia’s Eyes is this association with blindness, the dark and fear of the unknown. There’s a real vulnerability to Julia, as she undergoes treatment and ends up with that disturbing and somewhat fetishistic image of a bandage around her eyes, unable to know for certain what is going on in the world around her, and unsure of who she can trust. This provides plenty of occasion for house invaders to prowl around in the dark, making noises that unsettle the woman, but which, since they cannot be seen by Julia through her own eyes, also cannot be proved or trusted. Morales uses this first-person perspective well, not unexpectedly showing a gradually darkening vision that is unable to make out what is in the shadows, but also playing a neat trick – only occasionally mannered – of keeping faces out of view from the camera, so that the viewer, like Julia, cannot be sure of who they are seeing or what telltale expressions they are wearing.
Unfortunately, while technically well-done (particularly the lighting effects at the climax) and satisfyingly delivering all the expected twists, turns and jumps (although some suspension of disbelief is required for plot holes that inevitably occur), little of this is in any way original and, worse, little of it is genuinely unsettling or as shocking as when it was first done in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. There is however one scene alone that makes the film more than worthwhile and that is where the director unsettlingly confronts genuine fear and suspicion in attitudes towards the blind during a scene in a blind institute locker-room. It brings to mind another Spanish-language work by the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato, a section of his epic masterpiece ‘Sobre héroes y tumbas’, called ‘Informe sobre Ciegos’ (Report on the Blind), where a paranoid investigation on blind people forming an underground cult confronts deeper more unconventional psychological reactions towards blindness, as well as having potential political resonances. A little more Sabato or even Borges instead of Hitchcock or Argento would have gone a long way here, and the locker-room scene shows that the director is more than capable of exploring these ideas in a deeply disturbing way – but Julia’s Eyes unfortunately finds itself having to conform more to the conventions of the Spanish horror house style.