Picture Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic, the one with the stolid farmer and his missus. Now imagine that, were you able to slowly pan down and magically see what was going on just below the frame of this landmark 20th-century artwork, you were to spy a lithe girl sitting at their feet. She's slowly sawing away at the older couple's legs, cutting through sinew and bone, blood pooling around her on the ground. (You don't hear the elderly gent and his anxious-looking spouse screaming, as the young woman has already removed their tongues.) She has to do this, you understand, because if she hacks off their limbs, they can't run away from her. Now, she thinks, I'll never, ever have to be alone again.
That's the closest approximation to the feeling you get from watching The Eyes of My Mother, Nicolas Pesce's stunning, sick-as-fuck debut that quickly establishes itself as a high point of modern art-horror nightmare fodder. Its set-up could not be more Rural True Crime 101: A child named Francisca (Olivia Bond) lives in the countryside with her Portuguese mother and stoic Midwestern father. A stranger named Charlie (Will Brill) shows up one day while Dad is out, asking to use the bathroom; both Mom and viewers know something about this guy, who resembles a creepy, giggling Mormon missionary, is way off. But the scenario plays itself out with a horrifying inevitability, and when Pops comes home to find his daughter sitting quietly in the kitchen and the visitor doing unspeakable things in their bathroom, the tables get turned. Soon, Charlie finds himself chained up in the family barn. "You're going to kill me, aren't you?" he asks Francisca, as she sews up a wound. "Why would I kill you," the child replies. "You're my only friend."
What follows is a portrait of a burgeoning serial killer, rendered in the sort of stark black-and-white visual palette associated with police-file crime pics (though Zach Kuperstein's monochromatic cinematography couldn't be more beautiful, more expressionistic or more dread-inducing) and blessed with a groaning-to-droning score by Ariel Loh that suggests complete psychic breakdown. As the now-grown Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) exemplifies her mom's statement about the way "loneliness can do strange things to the mind," the film keeps toggling between making you sympathize with this poor, warped person and toying with your nervous system as the people who hover into her orbit find themselves reduced to permanent playthings or mysterious wrapped packages in a freezer.
By the time you've dropped your jaw over some gorgeously grotesque images – a corpse being tenderly washed in a milky bath, a long shot of a figure wandering blindly through a field, a silhouette of a witching-hour burial – and nearly lost your lunch over its pitiless brutality, you won't feel that you've watched this thrilling addition to backwoods guignol so much as been infected by it. Which is how good horror should operate; given that the movie comes blessed by Borderline Films, an indie outfit responsible for films like Afterschool (2008) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), you might think that this skew towards the imprint's in-house nihilistic chic. But if anything, Pesce's yowl into the abyss resembles the early Seventies' spate of scary movies (see Hooper, Tobe) set in our nation's rustic outskirts and whose monsters looked like your neighbors when they weren't wearing skin-masks. If The Eyes of My Mother is occasionally stylistic to a fault and ends way too abruptly, it's also the mark of someone who isn't afraid to make something that leaves scars. This is what curdled Americana looks like – a Joel-Peter Witkin portfolio come to life and a vision of jus' folks weaned on isolation, madness, and good old Type O.