During a thunderstorm a distraught woman screams abuse into the darkened corners of the room, until a flash of lightning reveals that she is blind, and that there is nobody there. It’s clear she is tormented by something as she makes her way down to the cellar, but by what is unclear, and as the strains of ‘The Look of Love’ pour from the stereo, we see the noose waiting.
Astronomer Julia (Belén Rueda) immediately senses that something is wrong with her twin sister Sara and drives with husband (Lluís Homar) to her house to discover an apparent suicide. Both sisters suffer from a degenerative disease that leads inevitably to blindness, and everyone apart from Julia believes Sara’s more advanced condition caused her to take her life. So Julia begins her own investigation, against the wishes of her husband, seeking out a man her sister was with but whom no one seems to have seen, every step she takes bringing on the stress-induced episodes that reduce her vision more and more…
The first few minutes of Guillem Morales’s film set out the stall for what is to follow, which is 90-odd minutes of splendid Gothic nonsense. We are in a strange Spanish hinterland of almost permanent rain and glowering skies, peopled by odd-looking types with something to hide, the lighting, sound and set design all working overtime to create an atmosphere of unease and lurking menace, where Morales can create creepy scene after creepy scene. One, where an unnoticed Julia listens in on a conversation about her sister in a centre for the blind, closely surrounded by chattering naked women, desperately trying to avoid their detection, had me stunned by its brilliantly mounted wrongness, the sightless women reconfigured into figures of spiteful menace, blithely discussing suicide as an unavoidable consequence of their condition, Julia’s awkwardness, repulsion and embarrassment mounting until the whole scene turns on its head with another twist. All great stuff, in the venerable thriller sub-genre of blind-women-in-peril, in the wake of The Spiral Staircase and Wait until Dark. With lots of artful use of point of view shots and selective framing, we see both through the eyes of the killer whom nobody sees, and through Julia’s steadily darkening vision.
The trouble is that anybody enthusiastic about all this malarkey will have seen enough of it to predict the film’s final twists and turns. Julia’s Eyes is fantastically entertaining for about three quarters of its running time and slightly disappointing thereafter. It’s still pretty scary, but never steps outside the confines of what you’d expect from this kind of thing. The splendid sense of menace built up around the shadowy killer is dissipated as their actual nature is revealed, and the last 20 minutes is unnecessarily cluttered with red herrings and dead ends. And don’t get me started on that final bloody scene… Still, it has all the qualities you’d expect from a Guillermo del Toro production, it looks and sounds great, Rueda plays Julia with the right mix of vulnerability and defiance, and there must be a fair few out there who’ll be just as swept up by the final reel as I was by the rattling nasty fun preceding it.
Watch an interview with Guillermo del Toro: