Do you want to know what film scared me more than any other when I was a kid? The film that, at the mere mention of its title, would send me running screaming to my room in a moist-eyed flurry of hysteria? You probably don’t even need me to say do you? It’s Demolition Man.
Now, there is a good reason for this. Aside from the obvious fact that I was a child, I was fairly cowardly and wet. If you haven’t seen Demoliton Man, there’s a scene at the beginning where Snipes’ character is imprisoned and tries to escape. Unfortunately, the only way to get out of the futuristic cell is to use an eye scanner. To bypass the lock, therefore, Snipes takes a warden hostage, gouges his eye out with a pen, and holds the skewered eyeball up to the light, leaving the poor warden writhing, blind and dying.
This went out on ITV, uncut, at about 9.15pm (they were considerate enough to bleep out all of the swearing, though), and traumatised me for a long time afterwards. Even now, as a bitter, wizened, desensitised husk of a man, I turn into a pinny-lifting squealer whenever I get the slightest hint that there may be some potential eye trauma around the corner.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds the prospect of losing their sight or damaging their eyes horrifying, however, and indeed, there have been many memorable instances of optical unpleasantness over the years in some of the most famous examples of extreme cinema, including the surrealist bovine eye-slicing of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and the excruciating gore of the splintered eyeball in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Despite this, surprisingly few films have used the natural squeamishness associated with the eye as the basis for a horror film – that is, until the arrival of new Spanish horror Julia’s Eyes.
The eponymous Julia (Belén Rueda) suffers from a rare degenerative sight disease; after collapsing unexpectedly at work, she intuits that something similar may have happened to her twin sister, who is already blind from the effects of the disease. When Julia and her husband (an excellent Lluís Homar) go to check up on her, they discover her hanged in the basement.
All signs point to suicide, but Julia is convinced that there are other, darker forces at work. As Julia’s sight and condition worsens, she continues to investigate her sister’s death, while at the same time being pursued by a mysterious, seemingly malevolent force.
Firstly, Julia’s Eyes is a really beautiful film – gorgeously photographed by Óscar Faura (The Orphanage), and directed with real verve and skill by newcomer Guillem Morales,who emerges as a director with real promise. The central idea of a protagonist who is losing her sight is an ingenious and unsettling one, and the filmmakers have a lot of fun with this concept – there are a number of really effective set-pieces in Julia’s Eyes, including a memorable early scene where Julia infiltrates a shower room unnoticed, and a great cat-and-mouse sequence towards the end between Julia and her tormentor that genuinely earns the adjective ‘Hitchcockian’.
Julia’s Eyes also boasts solid performances, with Homar being a standout but Rueda also playing the heroine with just the right mix of hysteria and steely-eyed (pardon the pun) resolve. The film is also to be commended for not relying purely on cheap jump shocks and excessive blood-letting to earn its scares, instead crafting a nice, pervasively creepy atmosphere, although there are still some effective scares, and one nasty bit of business for the gore-hounds as well (clue: it involves eyes).
Unfortunately, all of the great things Julia’s Eyes has going for it are undermined by its storyline, which is utter bobbins. There are plot holes, head-shaking moments abound, and the narrative eventually disappears completely up its own fundament towards the end of the film, lost in a sea of silly twists, reveals and red herrings that are largely completely unnecessary.
That the film is inherently ludicrous shouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Something like Dressed To Kill, a clear inspiration to Julia’s Eyes, has an equally, if not even more barmy storyline, but gets away with it because its setpieces are so strong – it’s paced well, and it ultimately embraces its own campy nature.
Julia’s Eyes has the set-pieces, but due to silly plotting, it isn’t able to carry off the notes of poignancy that it sorely wants to, and instead, in its slower moments, it just feels dull and portentous. This is particularly disappointing coming from producer Guillermo del Toro who, with The Orphanage and his own films, has consistently been able to produce that rarest of beasts, the intelligent and emotionally resonant horror film. Julia’s Eyes just doesn’t cut it in this regard, unfortunately.
Also, the pacing is way off: it’s at least half an hour too long, and it suffers from a dull first half. It’s a real shame, because inside Julia’s Eyes, there’s a great 90-minute horror film busting to get out. The final product is a diverting, well-made and in places inventive film, but in the end it’s too muddled and uneven to be added to the pantheon of great Spanish horror. Ultimately, Julia’s Eyes is scary, but not quite as scary as Demolition Man. And that’s a shame.