Director Nicolas Pesce Talks Fairy Tale Horror & His Disturbing Debut ‘The Eyes Of My Mother’

26-year-old filmmaker Nicolas Pesce stunned more than a few audiences at Sundance this year with his horrifically hypnotic goth breakthrough, “The Eyes Of My Mother.” Shot in an austere black and white, the creepy, precisely-constructed psychological horror is built in the mode of clean Alfred Hitchcock aesthetics and disturbing “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” moods. And the haunting thriller never lets up in its dark, twisted surprises. Without spoiling too much, the film centers on Francisca (breakout Portuguese actress Kika Magalhae), a woman who is struck by tragedy at an early age and becomes unfazed by, and even normalizes death.

Shattered and disconnected from the world, the deep traumas she endures, including the death of her father, awaken a disquieting curiosity in the her that soon takes a dark and grotesque turn. The genre picture also comes with a strong imprimatur: it was produced by the cinema collective Borderline Films, which gave us in the past few years “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “James White,” and “Simon Killer.” And “The Eyes Of My Mother” might be the best one of the bunch — it’s that good.

As the film debuts theatrically in limited release this weekend (New York and L.A.) we spoke to the writer-director about his absorbing gothic fairy tale, childhood traumas, what constitutes a horror film, what leads one to kill and more.

The first time I saw this film at Sundance I was stunned. This is a powerfully memorable film. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of my head.
Your reaction is what I was going for: to unsettle and just shake you up.

Can you remember the first time you actually saw it with an audience?
It was actually at Sundance. Within the first three minutes there were people walking out (laughs). There have been people walking out at almost every festival we’ve been to ever since.

The Eyes Of My MotherHow does that make you feel?
It makes me feel great. My producer’s family are almost all surgeons. They walked out of the Sundance premiere! Also, I don’t think many people know what to expect when they go into this film. We weren’t in the horror section at Sundance, or really any other festival, so I don’t think people knew what they were getting themselves into and that’s exactly what I wanted. I mean, if you’ve read the synopsis of the film it sounds like a family drama, so I do want that element of surprise to stay when you enter the film. That’s just a very cinematic feeling to have: going into the unexpected.

Is this film really a “horror” movie? Is there a genre that you could identify it with? It almost feels like a gothic-horror fairy tale.
I actually think that’s the best way to describe it. It’s in the same world as, say, “The Night of the Hunter,” which was an incredibly important influence for me while making this film. You know, like a late ’50s/early ’60s American gothic. Not just ‘Hunter,” but also William Castle.Hunter’ felt very much like a fairy-tale, but it also had this bleakness that you couldn’t deny. I talk about that film a lot. Its influence also resides with the fact that it has very dark subject matter, and yet, kids are involved, at times, even more so than the adults. It’s about family, trauma, childhood and all of that is in my film. There’s also that sense of sadness that lurks throughout the film and that is just very touching to have within all the violence that’s happening. I keep telling people that “The Eyes of My Mother” is “The Night of the Hunter” if the children didn’t get rescued.