Eyes of My Mother is 76 minutes long, but you feel every minute as if they've been crammed down your throat. It has pretentions to artistry and pathos. It is filmed in black and white, lavished on long static shots of its character's face. Long, static shots of a woman, bound in chains, shuffling out of the barn in which she has been prisoner. Long, long static shots of body parts arranged on a counter, shrink-wrapped, waiting to be stowed in the freezer. Its fairly boiler-plate horror content, different from less ambitious horror flicks only in the presentation.
Its the kind of stuff that would be too horrific to consume in most any other context: incest, prolonged torture, sexual assault, cannibalism, etc. The stuff of horror, yes, but rarely is it played for pathos outside of the genre I'll call "rural family horror".
"Rural family horror" probably had its genesis in the twisted family trees of Faulkner, or further back, with tales of ghosts moving between trees sheeted with spanish moss. But in terms of cinema, its earliest antecedent is probably 1962's Two Thousand Maniacs!
Directed by the original gore shlockmeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, Two Thousand Maniacs! tells the tasteless story of some unwitting tourists who are chopped and slashed to bloody bits after visiting a Southern town on the the anniversary of the Union destroying the town during the civil war. The town, naturally, is possessed by bloodthirsty Confederate ghosts. I don't think I'm breaking any new ground when I speculate that the horrors of the Civil War -- on both sides -- have very much informed the genre.
Dumb as it is, Two Thousand Maniacs! points to later, more respectable examples of the genre, like Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Consider Deliverance, infamous for the truly disturbing "squeal like a pig" scene, which did for hicks what Jaws did for sharks, or The Day After did for the bomb. Even though we loathe the hicks and react as surely as Pavlov's dogs to the sound of "Dueling Banjos", our sympathies are at least a little divided in the film. On some level the audience tends to think the four urbanites taking a canoe trip down the Georgia River deserve it, even if we are not conscious of our feelings. Like the Union soldiers that burned the town, thus inciting the titular Two Thousand Maniacs!, the middle-aged tourists are encroaching on territory in which they are not welcome.
If you switch the narrative's poles, that is, have avowed Southerners become the fish out of waters, the story is no longer horror. For instance, no version of The Beverly Hillbillies has the rural family terrorized by Californians. As much as I might like to see The Beverly Hillbillies Meets the Manson Family, no such story exists. When Southerners visit the north, the resulting pop culture story may be cute, or funny, or patronizing but it is rarely scary.
So horror films about the South seem to suggest that there's the south, and then there's the South. The south is merely directional, a point on the compass rose. But the South is a place removed, a band apart. In the former you might find some good barbecue, or some bluegrass music. In the latter, you get killed, raped, and/or eaten by cannibals.
How about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I seem unable to go a week without mentioning in this column. In TCM, the victims are also southerners, but not of the capital S variety. They're former Texans on a road trip, trying to find the homestead that they were able, years ago, to escape. Their mistake, then, is in returning to the site of "Rural Family Horror". They're no longer true Southerners and, once again, we are made to understand that they don't, or no longer, belong here.
And again, when they are trussed up, butchered and served to a grotesque perversion of the American nuclear family, we understand that the young victims should never have come this far, or this deep South even if they are former southerners themselves. But think of how different a story it would be if, instead of a bunch of kids piling into a van, heading south, and accidentally meeting the Sawyer family, the Sawyer family themselves piled into a van and headed north to, say, North Dakota. All of a sudden, what was horror becomes (dark) comedy: Fargo meets Deliverance.
Eyes of My Mother, with its repulsive content and focus on a grotesque family situation, is at play with the same deep crimson finger-paints as Texas Chainsaw and Deliverance. Aside from its nominally more "artistic" presentation, it isn't doing anything new. If anything, the "Rural Family Values Horror Film" has become a genre as recognizable with as easily defined tropes as stories of nuclear energy raising giant bugs, or ghosts spooking around gothic castles. And like those stories, they happen to tell us something about ourselves.
What they are is a counter-narrative to the American Dream, in which the bonds of family and region can easily rot and become toxic. Where the roots we put down can poison us, if they are not attended to.
We understand, of course, that the real south has problems. We understand that certain parts of the south have resisted the expansion of civil rights, and that a small but vocal minority of southerners have allowed hatred and xenophobia to hold sway.
We also understand, intellectually, that many southerners are as progressive as anyone north of the Mason Dixon; that they have fought for the rights of African Americans, and that they adamantly oppose the butchering and consumption of tourists.
But the South of our dreams, or more accurately, our nightmares, lives on in films like Eyes of My Mother. Its a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.