What’s scarier: a documentary about a psychopathic serial killer, or a horror movie about a psychopathic serial killer?
It’s a tough call. We all know the most unsettling films are not the ones that come with bright red fake blood, CGI and ghouly monsters but those that tap into something closer to home; that creep under your skin and prey on your deepest fears; that force you to question the darker side of your existence.
40 years ago, when The Exorcist was released, it was heralded as the scariest film ever made. It wasn’t just a film release, it was an event, and stories of priests anointing people as they went into theatres, and St. John ambulances with stretchers being placed on standby kept the movie in the papers for months.
In 2017, our lives are saturated with graphic images and the general consensus is that if you want to be disturbed, the most you need to do is spend 10 minutes on Twitter or scroll through your Facebook feed after an election. So what do we even need made-up horror for anymore? And how can you disturb an audience that’s become immune to harrowing images due to constant overexposure?
Modern horror directors certainly have their work cut out.
One director who's attempted to cut through the noise is Nicolas Pesce, with his American Gothic-inspired black and white debut, The Eyes Of My Mother. The approach Nicolas took was to try and evoke that fear you feel as a child when you’re too scared to sleep. “That doesn’t happen to adults anymore, but what if it did?” he asks. “What are adults afraid of?”
The first-time director drew on his own childhood experiences. “There are things from my childhood that sound really strange out of context – and just like the fabric of horror movies,” Nicolas tells Refinery29 over the phone from New York. Nicolas’ mother was an eye doctor, and the pair would regularly dissect cow heads on the kitchen table (she thought it was important that he understood anatomy). She was also his Sunday School teacher.
The film follows Francisca (Kika Magalhaes), a young girl whose mother (an eye surgeon played by Diana Agostini) is murdered by a door-to-door salesman. Soon after, her father also dies and Francisca is left alone with a very warped idea of what friendship and family look like. She's that particularly frightening brand of killer – the kind that's driven by a deep sense of isolation and a desperate need to love, and be loved.
A low budget meant raw material – there’s no CGI to hide behind or teams of makeup artists to help with the special effects – so most of the really gory bits happen offscreen. As such, the grimmest parts of the film are left to your own imagination.
Growing up on a diet of American Gothic horror films helped Nicolas master the art of deeply unsettling an audience. “I think there’s a really fascinating abstract mood manipulation that happens in horror,” says the director. “Being able to scare someone is unique to movies. It doesn’t quite work in theatre. Something like comedy works in a theatre, but horror doesn’t work outside of movies.”
Horror is a peculiar genre of film. At some point during the '80s, what was once a genuine art form was taken over by green monsters, teenagers and pastiche – and it’s only just started to recover. “We did teen screams, and girls running around topless covered in blood, and that sold tickets,” Nicolas observes. “But now you’re seeing things that are about something first. The horror is just the window-dressing.”
To really scare an audience in 2017, Nicolas argues, you have to start with something real. “I think now what it takes to scare an audience is a lot more emotional and visceral,” he continues. “I say this in the most endearing way – but horror movies aren’t always real movies. And when I say a real movie, you look at a classic like The Godfather, it has emotional character and you relate to these people, and no matter the circumstances you feel connected.”
“The scariest thing about scary movies is seeing yourself in someone that you would never want to see yourself in,” he continues. “Someone you’d like to be able to say, ‘Oh my god I’m nothing like that person’ – but you actually are. If you think about serial killers, they aren’t killing people 100% of the time. They have to be normal people some of the time. That is the darkest part of it. There is a normal person inside this person who does these bad things, there’s a reason why they’re doing it.”
Because when you’ve seen everything, what’s left to be scared of? Your own mind. And nothing leaves you at the mercy of that quite like being totally alone, as Francisca is for most of the film. As the master of horror, Stephen King once said: “Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”
But what purpose do horror films serve, when real life is scary enough already? “It’s a really safe but important way of exploring these sorts of things,” concludes Nicolas. “There are people like Francisca in the world and I could go and make a documentary about those people. But that would be too dark an exploration for me. Even for me, who’s making this movie, I don’t want to go that far.”