Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Spain enjoyed a lively notoriety among movie buffs for concocting awkward, off-beat, amusingly grotesque exercises in the horror genre. Think Paul Naschy, think Tombs of the Blind Dead. But those days have gone the way of the sombrero and the straw donkey, to judge by this elegant offering from writer/director Guillem Morales and producer Guillermo Del Toro.
Julia and her sister Sara (played by Belen Rueda with different hair) are both suffering from the same degenerative eye disease. Sara is the first to go blind. When she's found hanging by the neck from a rope in the basement of her rambling house, the general assumption is that despair has gotten the better of her. But Julia becomes convinced that someone else was there to kick the stool out from under her feet, and is soon on the trail of Sara's intriguingly mysterious boyfriend.
Lending urgency to her investigation is her own sense that she's being watched by an elusive and sinister presence. A creepy caretaker warns: “He has no light. He knows how to be a shadow.” As her own eyesight falters, she plays cat and mouse with this phantom through labyrinthine hospital basements and cavernous car parks.
The result is a refined, smartly tailored entry in the stalker sub-genre – although, as the killer has a thing about cameras, we're talking stalk and flash rather than stalk and slash. The storyline is a little conventional and lacking in emotional resonance, but the film compensates with style and the willowy, long-calved presence of Belen Rueda, who suffers beautifully in the lead role.
Morales mounts, shoots and edits his movie with a rather chilly bravura technique informed by the gialli of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma's Hitchock homages. He borrows Argento's trick of using a subjective camera to represent the faceless killer, and stages a climactic action set piece framed, a la Rear Window, in brilliant camera flashes. The result, just as with Argento and DaPalma, is contrived but undoubtedly luxurious, if lacking the perverse edge, the fire beneath the ice, to be truly memorable. Instead, it purrs along pleasantly, classy, assured but a trifle anonymous.
Julia's Eyes doesn't quite mesmerise in the way the best horror should, but it will appeal to fans of Argento and De Palma, and it's certainly a refreshing change from the cheap, grimy torture porn that so often gets released these days.
Julia's Eyes is released in the UK on DVD/Blu-ray September 12th