Although the savvy folks at IFC Midnight are clearly riding the coattails of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," the other Guillermo Del Toro-produced chiller getting a big theatrical release this week (that’s equally well worth your time), they should be celebrated for finally releasing “Julia’s Eyes,” the sophomore feature from Guillem Morales that’s no quick cash-in, but rather a relatively satisfying slow burn that's hitting video-on-demand around the country. With two particular sequences still singed into my brain a year after seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival, here’s what I wrote about it back then:
As admirable as it is that Guillermo Del Toro has been supporting new Spanish filmmakers, I'm beginning to worry the steady stream of talented writer/directors he's been throwing his weight behind might ultimately become competitors. They're certainly good enough. Like J.A. Bayona, the director of 2007's "The Orphanage," Guillem Morales proves with "Julia's Eyes" that the most exciting horror films in the world right now are being produced in Spain, where a Baroque, classical style has been reinvented with a touch of the desaturated austerity of J-horror to birth some seriously freaky shit.
Whereas "The Orphanage" had one of the scariest jump scares of recent memory, "Julia's Eyes" would be worth seeing alone for two of the creepiest sequences I can remember using found light, with one scene using just the intermittent light of a Blackberry down a hallway of pipes to build the tension. The smartphone belongs to Julia (Belén Rueda), whose blind sister Sara dies at the beginning of the film, leading Julia to return home, unconvinced by local authorities that her sister's death was a suicide. Julia is also starting to lose her vision, and along with her skeptical husband (Lluís Homar), she's being pulled into the same life that led to her sister's demise, with a suspicious caretaker to help her and eccentric neighbors who can't be trusted, either. To say much more would give way to massive spoilers, but the audience is aware from the very beginning that Sara's death wasn't a suicide and the other murders that follow are committed by someone in the neighborhood.
The primary flaw of "Julia's Eyes" is there may actually be too many neighbors since Morales' film is occasionally slowgoing, even in a genre known for taking its time. Sometimes this is successful, like a particularly unsettling early scene where Julia visits her late sister's gym locker room and finds a group of undressed women changing clothes and talking to each other with no awareness that Julia is standing amongst them – it lasts nearly five minutes and gradually gets more and more uncomfortable. But it is less interesting in the moments where Morales excessively sets up the mysterious caretaker without ever showing his face or some of the meandering conversations Julia has with anyone other than her husband, which add needless complications to the plot and seem to bide time until the next big scare.
Which there are in spades. If Morales took anything from Del Toro, it's an appreciation for sound design and a belief in building towards the big scene. In "Julia's Eyes," it's the crackle of an antique camera's flash bulb that makes one's blood curdle, often punctuated by how Morales turns whatever light source is organic to any particular scene into the pulse of the film. "Julia's Eyes" doesn't deviate enough from other Spanish thrillers of late to consider it a breakthrough, but it is a more than solid entry into the genre with some truly extraordinary thrills to be had.