There’s a lot that shouldn’t be said about Piercing, Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to his glorious 2016 horror, Eyes of My Mother.
Because the film’s tension relies on power exchanges, surprises and averted climaxes, the less you know about how the story progresses, the better.
Suffice it to say that new father Reed (Christopher Abbott), fighting a serious urge to stab his infant with an ice pick, concocts a plan. It involves that ice pick, a “business trip” out of town, and a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska).
The amateur murderer works out the perfect crime, practicing conversations and actions (decorated by Pesce’s remarkable knack for unsettling sound effects), only for the cosmos—or the filmmaker—to wreck those plans.
Abbott’s flat yet sympathetic would-be murderer helps Pesce achieve a peculiar, semi-comic tone, but it’s Wasikowska, playing wildly against type, who carries this film. The two share a mad and maddening chemistry, and even during moments of somewhat forced dialog, their commitment and spark keep you enthralled and guessing.
The film is an exercise in thwarted expectations wrapped up in voyeurism and lurid imagery.
The influences here are dizzying. Ryu Murakami’s source material obviously evokes his own Audition (director Takashi Miike’s classic in power shifting and poor romantic choices). The opening act wades through more modern indie sensibilities, but Pesce quickly overwhelms that flat grit with grindhouse thriller flair before simply succumbing to giallo (Goblin tuneage and all).
This drunken meandering through styles fits the narrative that forever questions the reality or unreality of each situation. Like the cityscape miniatures Pesce uses as the adventure’s out-of-town backdrop, Reed’s whole experience could simply be cool -looking but pretend.
Are those flashbacks or nightmares? Does Reed have a haunted past leaking its way into his present, or is he simply a psychotic hoping to overcome his problem by submitting to it just this once?
Pesce toys with our commitment to Reed’s reality, questionable from the moment his infant halts a crying jag to tell his father, in a demonic voice, “You know what you have to do.”
It’s not a film that will satisfy a lot of viewers, it’s more of a fascinating and forgettable sketch. Still, at under 90 minutes, it’s a weirdly fun little indulgence won’t hurt you. Well, not too much.
The relationship between mothers and daughters informs an awful lot of great horror films from The Exorcist to Black Swan. Frightmare suggests that becoming your mother is inescapable. The Woman tells us that if we can’t raise our daughters right, a more alpha mom might show up and do it for us. The Ring and Mom and Dad remind us that moms aren’t perfect. They have bad days. Sometimes they may want to drop you down a well.
We focus on five horror films where that relationship between mother and daughter informs and impacts the storyline in a substantial way.
5. The Bad Seed (1956)
The minute delicate Christine’s (Nancy Kelly) husband leaves for his 4-week assignment in DC, their way-too-perfect daughter begins to betray some scary behavior. The creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones) has her figured out – he knows she’s not as perfect as she pretends.
You may be tempted to abandon the film in its first reel, feeling as if you know where it’s going. You’ll be right, but there are two big reasons to stick it out. One is that Bad Seed did it first, and did it well, considering the conservative cinematic limitations of the Fifties.
Second, because director Mervyn LeRoy’s approach – not a single vile act appears onscreen – gives the picture an air of restraint and dignity while employing the perversity of individual imaginations to ramp up the creepiness.
Enough can’t be said about Patty McCormack. There’s surprising nuance in her manipulations, and the Oscar-nominated 9-year-old handles the role with both grace and menace.
4. Hounds of Love (2016)
It is the late 1980s in Perth, Australia, and at least one young girl has already gone missing when the grounded Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) sneaks out her bedroom window to attend a party. She doesn’t like staying with her mom, who left her dad and ruined the family and her life.
So she sneaks out, which isn’t nearly as dumb a move as is accepting a ride from Evie White (Emma Booth) and her husband, John (Stephen Curry).
Writer/director Ben Young’s amazing feature debut works on so many levels and showcases a master visual storyteller almost as brilliantly as it shines the light on three phenomenal performances.
What is it that may finally undo the evil the Whites have planned? One mother’s relentless devotion to her daughter and another mother’s sudden, stabbing empathy.
3. Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Francisca’s mother had been an eye surgeon back in Portugal.
“We used to do dissections together. She always hoped I’d be a surgeon one day.”
Though Mom appears only in Act 1 of writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s modern horror masterpiece Eyes of My Mother, her presence echoes throughout the lonely farmhouse Francesca rarely leaves.
Yes, the skills her mother imparted coupled with the trauma Francesca faced bleeds together to create a character whose splintered psyche keeps her from seeing that she’s taking some extreme measures to cure her lonliness.
This is one of the most beautifully filmed horror movies ever made, and as impeccable as the cinematography, the sound is even more important and magnificent. Together with restrained performances and jarring images, Eyes of My Mother is a film that sticks around even after it’s gone. Like a mom.
2. The Witch (2015)
There is a lot going wrong for poor Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). But it all starts when the baby goes missing on her watch. Her mother (Kate Dickie) never forgives her for it and soon Mother is finding faults with Thomasin, making accusations that even Father, who knows better, won’t defend.
For The Witch to work, for us to tentatively hope that Black Philip talks back, Thomasin has to basically lose everything, and it all starts with her mother’s love and respect. Soon her mother’s bitterness turns to competition for the affection of the menfolk, accusations of all sorts of wrongoing, all of which spirals out of control until Thomasin has no one left, no one who will love her and look after her, except that goat.
Robert Egger’s unerringly authentic deep dive into radicalization, gender inequality and isolation is all sparked with one act that irrevocably ruptures one relationship.
1. Carrie (1976)
There is nobody quite like Margaret White. Oscar nominee Piper Laurie saw the zealot for all her potential and created the greatest overbearing mother film has ever seen. (We never did see Mrs. Bates, did we?)
Sissy Spacek (also Oscar nominated for her performance) is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Laurie’s glorious, evil zeal. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.
De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen streamline King’s meandering finale. Wise, because once the dance drama is done, we just want to find out what happens at home, and Mrs. White doesn’t disappoint.
The Eyes of My Mother will remind you of many other films, and yet there truly is no film quite like this one.
First time feature writer/director Nicolas Pesce, with a hell of an assist from cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, casts an eerie spell of lonesome bucolic horror.
Shot in ideal-for-the-project black and white, an Act 1 event could come from any number of horror films. A mother looks out her window to see her young daughter, playing alone in the front lawn, talking with a stranger. There is something clearly wrong with the stranger, and things take a bad turn. But for Pesce, this simple, well-worn set-up offers endless unexplored possibilities. Because this bad man doesn’t realize that the isolated farm family he’s come to harm is very comfortable with dissection.
His film is told in three parts. Part 1, with the stranger, sees the young Francisca (Olivia Bond) finding her role in her family. It changes after the stranger’s visit.
Parts 2 and 3 catch up with the family quite a few years later. The now-grown Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) takes some extreme measures to end her loneliness.
There is much power in dropping an audience into a lived-in world – the less we know, the better. Pesce understands this in the same way Tobe Hooper did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and though The Eyes of My Mother lacks the cynicism, satire and power tools of Hooper’s farmhouse classic, it treads some similar ground.
Where Eyes differs most dramatically from other films is in its restraint. The action is mostly off-screen, leaving us with the sounds of horror and the quiet clean-up of its aftermath to tell us more than we really want to know.
As retrained as it is, The Eyes of My Mother hardly lacks in sensual experience. Stunning, gorgeously lit frames are matched with garish sound editing.
Kuperstein’s cinematography is sometimes almost Malick-like. Pesce focuses that camera on nearly silent moments full of traumatic images. He creates dissonance between the peaceful, idyllic scenes and the pinpoint imagery, the horrifying sounds.
The quiet amplifies Francisca’s isolation. The sounds amplify something else entirely.
Though Eyes of My Mother is reminiscent of several Seventies horrors, its muted telling exposes a patience rarely found in the genre. Pesce repays you for your patience.