Stranger Danger: How The Eyes of My Mother Uses the Audience’s Imagination for Maximum Scares
A mother sees a strange man talking to her daughter outside.
The man says he needs to use the bathroom. He’s nicely dressed, but there’s something odd about him. Despite her better judgment, the woman lets the man into her house. Later, her husband returns home to find their daughter sitting in the kitchen, listening to her mother being murdered in the other room.
The very early moments in this scene from The Eyes of My Mother were inspired by something that actually happened in my life. When I was a kid, a man in a button-down shirt, with vacuum cleaner bags tucked under his arm, came up my driveway and started talking to me. My mother saw this and came racing outside. In real life, the man left, my mom called the cops, and when they found the guy, it turned out he had some sort of criminal record, and had no vacuum cleaners to go with the bags he had. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what had happened. What really affected me was how scared my mother was. That scene stayed with me.
I’ve always found that the scariest moments in film are the things that could really happen to you. Things like kidnapping, violence, and home invasion have always terrified me. I find home invasion particularly horrifying, and far more tangible than being ravaged by zombies. So to build the sequence, I started with a real-life scare, something that I’d gone through, and thought of the worst possible version of it—violence toward my mother. The challenge then became to build a series of moments that psychologically intensify the horror.
To achieve this, I took my cues from the traditions of American Gothic. Take a movie like The Night of the Hunter. The violence is never shown. Spoiler alert: In the film, the naïve mother is killed by a seemingly innocuous stranger she lets into the house. The key is, we never see the murder. The characters don’t even really know she’s dead. The only way the audience knows she’s dead is seeing this great shot of her dead body strapped into a car underwater. Even though the actual visual scare is so quick and fleeting, it tells so much of the story. Yet the real horror is the painfully suspenseful foreplay to the violence.
The fuel of American Gothic is the fact that the fear of impending violence is scarier than the violence itself. And then once you get to the climax of the suspense, when the audience is at their most vulnerable, you give them a moment that stays burned in their minds, and forces them to think about something they’d never want to think about. Like the death of a loved one.
I love when movies start to build suspense while nothing all that scary is going on. I learned it mostly from David Lynch. He does it in everything. It’s also that scene in The Shining when Jack Torrance menacingly tells Danny that he’ll never hurt him. It’s every second with Norman Bates in Psycho. It’s even in every moment with Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka. It’s so uncomfortable to see something that feels equal parts funny and creepy. Gene Wilder’s performance is so odd, his facial expressions and mannerisms so strange, that no matter how jovial he acts, it comes off as wildly off-putting. In all of these instances, the fact that you can’t quite put your finger on why you’re so uncomfortable makes it all the more unsettling.
This is what we were trying to capture with Charlie, the well-dressed intruder. His introduction is just scene about a guy asking to use the bathroom. But there’s something slightly off about everything. The odd performances, the strange timing, the cinematography, the lighting, the sound, everything is just a little bit off; it’s almost imperceptibly different from reality but it still feels distinctly uncomfortable.
When the audience is at its most vulnerable, the sequence delivers the finale to the suspense—the actual murder. But like in The Night of the Hunter, you never actually see the murder. The moment is experienced through the young daughter sitting in another room, listening to the violence—an image far more chilling than the violence itself. And in only giving the audience a piece of the information, the viewer is forced to fill in the blanks, to imagine what’s going on in the other room to match the terrible sounds.
If I were to show the violence on screen, you could close your eyes, or look away. But if I force you to think about it, you can’t avoid it. And that’s far more haunting. That’s my brand of horror: finding a way to force you to think about something you’d never want to imagine. What’s scarier than that? MM
The Eyes of My Mother opens in theaters December 2, 2016, courtesy of Magnet Releasing.