Guillem Morales’ debut feature is an interesting horror flick about a woman struggling against forces seemingly outside her control, whilst simultaneously losing her sight.
An excellent Belén Rueda stars as Julia, whose blind sister Sara hangs herself in the film’s brooding opening – or does she? Sara is convinced there’s somebody there in the room with her, and as we glimpse a foot kicking away that stool, so are we. From there we learn that Julia suffers from the same deteriorating eye condition as her twin sister and that, in all probability, she will grow steadily more blind until her sight is entirely gone.
This is natural territory for horror, a genre that – even when dealing with fully sighted characters – loves to play with our perceptions, to deceive and trick us, to manipulate the natural obscurity of viewing things through a limited lens. In exploiting the primal fear of losing one’s sight, Los Ojos de Julia (Julia’s Eyes) is often very successful. That’s the benefit of the subject matter – at its most basic level, this film deals with something that we, the audience, are all naturally afraid of – blindness. That it drops the ball alarmingly in the final act is a huge disappointment.
In terms of quality, the film can be divided fairly neatly between its three acts. In the first act, Morales establishes a moody, dark tone that he fairly relentlessly pursues. Do all public places need to be drenched in inadequate lighting? In horror they do. The centre for the blind that Julia visits early in the film, looking for answers about her sister, is a great, looming edifice, bathed in shadows and rust and sitting on a network of bleak, underground tunnels. And that’s a public health centre. It may not be realistic, but it works. The sniffing, ghoul-like blind women that populate the place are equally ludicrous, gathering around Julia’s unseen presence like harpies waiting to strike.
These early scenes are stock horror film fare, yes, but they work because an interesting plot is beginning to develop. That plot extends into act two, in which Julia and her husband Isaac (Lluís Homar, looking in the more serene moments like the Spanish Colin Firth) attempt to unravel the mysteries surrounding Sara’s death. This mid-section is the film’s strongest, maintaining the brooding aesthetic of the opening (there is one particularly sinister dream sequence) but injecting some welcome character development and even an emotional hook, too.
Then we arrive at a third act which is far too long and drawn out, throwing interesting set pieces at the screen that are handled well but dilute the weight of the previous hour and a half. Revelations begin to emerge that paint the story in disappointingly familiar colours; a villain comes to light that is monumentally disappointing, despite the strong set up that leads to the unveiling. Some earlier story elements are seemingly brushed aside. There are a couple of moments towards the end that aim for twisty shocks but actually fall flat: you know you’ve missed a trick when the audience starts off jumping and ends up laughing.
The film is produced by Guillermo del Toro, whose history of producing horror and bringing new directors to the fore is growing admirably (look out for Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark later this year), but it doesn’t match the thrills of 2007’s The Orphanage. That film kept itself together and knew what it wanted to be. Julia’s Eyes builds nicely but fades quickly, ultimately failing to deliver on most of its promises. That said, Morales (like his cinematographer Óscar Faura, who shoots the thing well) is surely a name to look out for, perhaps when he gets his hands on some slightly stronger material.