The production roster of Mexican-born genre auteur Guillermo Del Toro continues to expand unabated with the release of stylish Spanish language thriller “Julia’s Eyes” (Los ojos de Julia) on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing. Del Toro’s attachment to this, the second feature outing from Spanish director Guillem Morales (“The Uncertain Guest”) is sure to boost its profile considerably, especially after the success of the “Pan’s Labyrinth” director’s prominent involvement in the genre-fan-targeted publicity campaign which accompanied modern Spanish horror classic “The Orphanage” a few years ago. But the parallels between that film and this one extend beyond just Guillermo Del Toro agreeing to having his name prominently displayed on the poster after he’d given the screenplay the once over: the most obvious connection is that both films star Spanish actress Belén Rueda in the lead role, playing similarly haunted characters (although for very different reasons in very different circumstances). Beyond that, the two films are also tonally very similar in their stylish visual aesthetics; they share a colour palette that is all twilight blues, aquatic greens and faded browns. This visual similarity is thanks perhaps to their sharing a cinematographer in Óscar Faura, who has been involved in many of the cult Spanish horror films -- if only in a second unit capacity -- which paved the way for the emergence of an Iberian boom in the genre during the mid noughties. Fernando Velázquez also provided a prominent orchestral score for “The Orphanage”, with his sometimes over intrusive underscoring. His work for “Julia’s Eyes” follows suit, although it arguably plays better here since the Hitchcockian thriller form lends itself to baroque suspense set-pieces in which the foregrounding of an ever present, mood-setting orchestral score is frequently a determining factor in the set-up – as is the case in a lot of the work of Brian de Palma, whose influence is most definitely felt across much of this movie. So deep run the stylistic parallels between J.A. Bayona’s now immensely well regarded film and this one, though, that they kind of feel like they’ve emerged from the same hand, despite different directors and writers being involved. Even so, the two films are dealing in vastly different sub-genres of horror, and “Julia’s Eyes” betrays nods towards a clear set of influences that range all the way from (of course) Hitchcock to prime Lucio Fulci. Morales brings these diverse influences together in an intricately constructed and intelligent thriller which has some interesting things to contribute to Dario Argento’s perverse contention that victim and killer share an intimate relationship in the giallo that goes beyond the ken of the everyday world.
Here, Belén Rueda plays the dual roles of twin sisters Sara and Julia, although Sara’s involvement with the narrative doesn’t get past the opening segment when her forced suicide appears to be prompted by the malign intervention of a black-clad assailant with an old-style box camera and a flash bulb, who afterwards takes pictures of her corpse hanging from a rope noose in her darkened cellar. At the moment of Sara’s death, her estranged twin sister Julia experiences a seizure and an overwhelming desire to visit the woman whom she hasn’t seen in many months. It turns out that both siblings suffer from the same rare degenerative condition which means they go slowly and irreversibly blind. Sara had already completely lost her vision and was in the process of undergoing the experimental treatment of Dr Román (Daniel Grao) when the two sisters became distant and lost touch with each other. Julia and her psychologist husband Isaac (Lluís Homar) turn up at Sara’s house and discover her body; naturally, Isaac and the attendant police inspector Dimas (Francesco Orella) draw the expected conclusion: Sara has committed suicide. But Julia is not convinced. The accumulation of small, niggling details starts to persuade her of what the viewer already knows to be true: that Sara’s death was no accident. She begins her own investigation, much to her husband’s displeasure; after all, stress accelerates the onset of her blindness – she’s already lost twenty per cent of her vision and the obsession with the idea that her sister was murdered can only increase the possibility of more seizures. Nevertheless, Julia is drawn further into the mystery, uncovering a tangle of sinister associations as she interviews first a blind cat-loving next-door neighbour (Julia Gutiérrez Caba) and then the blind patients at a mysterious institute Sara was apparently involved with. She learns her sister was also apparently having an affair, but no one seems to recollect many details of this invisible man. Julia tracks down the location of their secret assignations though: a seedy out-of-town hotel. As her obsession grows, Julia begins to uncover connections between Sara and those closest to her while, all the time, someone dark and mysterious seems to be shadowing her – an invisible presence who goes unnoticed by everyone else, but who becomes more and more prominent to her as her debilitating blindness starts to get more acute with the stress of the investigation. Then, people Julia has spoken to about her sister also start dying, also in staged suicides -- and Julia faces the prospect of being at the mercy of a killer, alone and sightless …
Blindness has been memorably used before in clammy suspense thrillers such as Terrence Young’s “Wait Until Dark” with Audrey Hepburn, and Richard Fleischer’s 1971 chiller (written by Brian Clemens) “See No Evil”, in which a sightless Mia Farrow found herself being stalked by a killer in her own home . A blind character was portrayed with unusual discretion and sympathy by Dario Argento in his second feature, “Cat O’ Nine Tales", and less so in Bruce Robertson’s “Jennifer Eight”. “Julia’s Eyes” differs from all these in that it involves a partially sighted protagonist facing up to the prospect of blindness, who, over the course of the film, finds her sight becoming progressively worse the more she sees and learns about the events surrounding her sister’s murder. The film also puts particular emphasis on the elusive unseen presence she is seeking during this time: the killer, who, it turns out, not only seeks out the blind for attention but attempts to facilitate blindness in his victims, invading their homes at night while they sleep and injecting them with a hypodermic that frays the optic nerve. The relationship between Julia and her sister’s killer is built on his feelings of inadequacy, estrangement from society and a sense of invisibility which leads him to seek out those who are actually the most prone to being able to detect his presence and therefore confirm his existence through their heightened sense of awareness. The killer is so insignificant and unmemorable that he is able to move about with impunity leaving no witnesses to his crimes, and is able to cover his tracks even as Julia finds out more about his relationship with her dead sister.
But Julia’s desire to solve her sister’s murder also facilitates her own approaching descent into sightlessness, which then allows the killer ever-increasing access to her private life until he is able to move about just as freely in her presence without her being able to do anything to counter the threat. The dependency of a blind person is exactly the relationship the killer wants to foster in order to give him-self the sense of validation he craves. Morales is thereby able to deal with quite a hefty weight of subtext concerning this relationship of mutual dependency between the two central characters – the stalker/killer and the hunted, potential victim – using copious references and motifs which will be familiar to the viewer of genre cinema. Rueda plays both sisters, one a brunette the other blonde, in reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, while the stalker’s photographic record of his voyeuristic relationship courts Jimmy Stewart’s use of flash-photography as a weapon at the climax of “Rear Window” and is fetishized as a wall full of snaps of the unwitting protagonist that the victim cannot see and is unaware of despite it being in full view. Although the ornate style of the film draws comparison with the cinema of Brian de Palma, the director is clearly relying on the heritage of the Italian giallo for many effects particularly with his portrayal of the killer as a shadowy presence who emerges as a black-clad and gloved stalker who is able to assume various identities by taking advantage of the protagonist’s worsening sight. In true giallo tradition, lots of suspicious secondary characters are rolled on one by one to act as red herrings, and there are more twists than would be strictly credible in the real world, with almost everyone involved in a web of lies and cover-ups which Julia gradually unpicks on her journey into darkness: there’s a neighbour who may be feigning her own blindness; a lecherous acquaintance with an oddball daughter who once befriended Sara; a sullen home care attendant who takes rather too keen an interest in his clients – anyone of them could be the culprit. Although Argento may be the name most associated with the giallo, if the film has any connection with him at all it’s more his later Americanised works such as “Trauma” to which we should look for family resembles rather than the hallucinogenic madness of the maestro at his peak. Lucio Fulci memorably used a blind character as a sort of seer in “The Beyond”, and Cinzia Monreale’s milky-eyed soothsayer is specifically referenced in the appearance of a group of blind women Julia encounters in a changing room at an institute for the blind. Morales even includes a piece of Fulci-esque eye violence involving a hypodermic needle to an eyeball, which is technically way beyond anything the godfather of gore could have achieved during his heyday. Morales is most effective when manipulating viewpoint, poking the camera into shadowy corners and lingering there, having blurry characters move around in the back of shot and restricting our view of faces as Julia’s own vision worsens, so we can never be sure that apparently trusted characters are still who they say they are. The climax turns on a suspenseful extended sequence in which Julia, having temporarily regained her sight, has to continue with the charade of blindness while the unsuspecting killer disposes of a mutilated body right in front of her nose or tests her truthfulness by waving the tip of the blade of a knife millimetres from her eyeball. “Julia’s Eyes” comes to DVD (and Blu-ray) with a perfectly good 2.35:1 transfer and excellent Dolby Digital Spanish language 5.0 Surround Sound audio with subtitles. The extras are nothing special though and consist of a trailer and several fairly insignificant interview segments, none of which last longer than three minutes. These include contributions from the director, the two lead actors and Del Toro himself; as well as seven minutes of B-Roll footage from behind the scenes.