THE ZONE has my review of Guillem Morales’ disappointing Los Ojos de Julia.
The difference between the critical reaction to Julia’s Eyes and the critical reaction to James Wan’s Insidious sheds some interesting light on the extent to which our reactions to things are determined by the ways in which they are marketed and packaged. Indeed, boasting a cinematic heritage including such films as Saw and Paranormal Activity, Insidious was dismissed by many critics as stupid, childish and derivative. Or, as Nigel Floyd puts it in his review for Time Out:
From the co-creators of ‘Saw’ (James Wan and Leigh Whannell, here director and writer) and the director of ‘Paranormal Activity’ (Oren Peli, producing) comes a project featuring nothing that was original, distinctive or scary about either earlier film.
Floyd then concludes his piece with a flourish of scorn:
Not so much insidious as inexcusable.
Compare this level of dismissive hostility with many of the reviews of Julia’s Eyes and you find a very different reaction to what is, ultimately, a film operating in very much the same genre and with very much the same set of concerns and interests. Consider, for example, Nigel Floyd’s review for Time Out:
Guillem Morales’s thriller aims for intricate, Hitchcockian suspense, embellished with ornate visual flourishes that recall Dario Argento’s early giallo movies.
In fairness to Floyd, he does go on to suggest that Morales doesn’t quite manage to achieve these aims but the difference between the two reviews is quite striking. Neither film is a classic of the genre but because Julia’s Eyes reminds Floyd of Hitchcock and Argento while Insidious reminds Floyd of Saw and Paranormal Activity, Julia’s Eyes is judged with a good deal more charity. However, as I argue in my review, Julia’s Eyes fails precisely because of its direction. Morales is not only less visually imaginative than Wan but also less technically able when it comes to creating the sort of tension required to sustain a horror film and when Wan reaches for humour he connects whereas when Morales reaches for sentiment he comes away only with a handful of slush:
The chief problem with Morales’ direction is that he allows his scenes to drag on for far too long without ever really developing beyond their initial conditions. Time and again, Morales makes effective use of sound-effects and lighting cues to create an unsettling atmosphere only for this atmosphere to dissipate as audiences are allowed to grow accustomed their cinematic surroundings.
The technical failings of Julia’s Eyes are so obvious to me that I find myself wondering whether the film’s positive critical reaction might not have been due more to the way in which the film was marketed than to its inherent qualities. Indeed, while Insidious was marketed as a stupid Horror film, Julia’s Eyes was marketed as an art house thriller of precisely the sort produced by Hitchcock and Argento. While the fact that the film was in a foreign language may have hurt it at the box office, I think that its foreign language dialogue may have served to bolster its art house credentials and so helped to solicit a more positive reaction from critics.
The more I review and the more I attempt to deconstruct my own evaluative thought processes, the more it occurs to me that my reaction to films and books is determined as much by the context of discovery as by the works themselves. If a work comes to me warmly recommended by a trusted source then I am more disposed to be charitable. If a book has a cover adorned with dark imagery then I am likely to read it as Horror but if the same book comes with a cover with more neutral colours then I am more likely to see it as fantasy. The conflict between precept (my reaction as dictated by non-textual factors) and concept (my reaction to the content of the work itself) also determines the strength of my reaction. If I go into something expecting it to be awful only to discover that it is quite good then I am more likely to give it a really positive review. Similarly, if I go into something expecting it to be one of the books of the year only to discover that it is merely okay then I am less likely to be charitable in my evaluation.
Humans are such complex beasts and I suspect all of this explains why so many ‘serious’ academic critics tend to steer clear of evaluation…