Crystal Eyes aka Mirada de Cristal (Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano, 2017)

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Note: This review contains spoilers

At a high concept fashion show in Bueno Aires, brattish supermodel Alexis Carpenter is set to close the show in typically dramatic fashion. However, after lashing out at those around her in a drug fuelled series of diva like demands, she succumbs to a terrible accident, burned alive in front of a horrified audience of industry veterans. Flash forward a year later and the tragic death of Alexis Carpenter is still very much on the minds of those within the Bueno Aires fashion industry. Lucia L’uccello, the ruthless editor of the most sought after fashion magazine in the city, Attila, decides to commemorate Alexis’ passing with a memorial edition of the magazine pitting rival models Eva Lantier and Irene del Lago against one another for the coveted front cover. The night before the photo shoot is due to take place, Alexis’ dresses - which were to be worn by the models for the shoot - are stolen setting in motion a chain of murders committed by a sinister figure in a black leather raincoat and doll like mask. Is the culprit someone seeking revenge for Alexis’ death or has Alexis herself returned from the grave? 

Over the course of the last decade, the neo-giallo has come into prominence - lurid, fetishistic trope laden films inspired by the work of prominent giallo directors such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. The neo-giallo, a term initially ascribed to the artful films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, has increasingly become a genre of its own via the films and shorts of a myriad of filmmakers who have displayed their love for the giallo by paying tribute to it via the adoption of visual styles, tropes and narrative cues typically attributed to the stylistic cinema of Italy’s cinematic golden age. Whilst the majority of these love letters to the Italian giallo rely heavily on the genre’s obvious 1970s aesthetic; Argentinian directors, Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano, with their cinematic debut Argentine giallo, Crystal Eyes, buck this trend instead filtering their tribute to the Italian giallo through a thorough a 1980s sensibility. Whilst Endelman and Montejano’s influences are apparent, they manage to craft their tribute to the giallo into its own distinct entity not constrained by a need to emulate the historical period typically associated with the genre. 

Crystal Eyes draws its stylistic cues from the 1980s whilst referencing the thriller conventions of the Italian gialli of the early 1970s. An amalgamation of the operatic flourishes of the giallo combined with the extravagance of 1980s cinematic excess. The film feels like its own distinct entity with the 1980s slant making for a welcome change in a genre dominated by homages to golden period gialli from the early 1970s. Yet, Crystal Eyes still retains a distinct giallo flavour throughout with its clear homages to the genre and frequent references to the films of Dario Argento interspersed with dashes of the hedonistic high glamour of later period 1980s gialli such as Nothing Underneath (Vanzina, 1985) and Delirium (Bava, 1987). 

Crystal Eyes’ is a fairly straightforward take on the models in peril strain of gialli with various figures in the fashion industry finding themselves at the mercy of a vengeful killer set against a backdrop of catty rivalries, drug abuse and the vacuous nature of the fashion world. The plot is presented in your traditional murder mystery format in the vein of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and is fairly simplistic but despite the lack of complexity with character motivations and back stories, enough detail and context is given to feel sufficient for the film’s narrative. The film is somewhat formulaic with its twists and turns but that’s by no means a bad thing - part of the enjoyment of Crystal Eyes is anticipating the various murders that take place and participating in the process of elimination. Endelman and Montejano’s simple yet effective story allows for Crystal Eyes’ startling art direction to shine whilst still providing enough of a framework for the film to feel beyond a simple exercise in style. Whilst the film’s inspiration is clear to see for seasoned fans of the giallo, a knowledge of the genre isn’t a requirement to appreciate what Crystal Eyes has to offer. The brisk rhythm and cast of eclectic characters and impressive 1980s visuals are sure to catch the interest of those with a passing interest in thriller horror cinema and stylistic excess. 

Crystal Eyes premiered in 2017 at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina and then premiered in the UK to audiences at FrightFest in 2018. On the festival circuit the film was warmly received and it is clear to see why. Beyond its homages to the giallo, lurid style and murder set pieces, Crystal Eyes has a sense of humour and self awareness playing to its audience’s knowledge of the genre without veering too far into pastiche or parody. There’s a campness, with the exaggerated performances of its players and most of all, a sense of fun that makes the film such a delight to spend time with. Endelman and Montejano’s enthusiasm radiates throughout the film and Crystal Eyes’ cast clearly relish the theatrical nature of their roles. 

Crystal Eyes is populated by a large cast of, mostly, superfluous characters with the film lacking a protagonist per se, instead trying to capture the stories of the various individuals who work for Attila from Alexis’ rivals to the movers and shakers of the Buenos Aires fashion scene. Crystal Eyes is competently acted with a cast that manage to hit both the film’s comedic and horror notes and are suitably convincing in their respective roles. The film’s stand out performance comes from Silvia Montanari, a Argentinian television veteran, who delivers a deliriously camp turn as self confessed villainess and editor of Attila magazine, Lucia L’uccello. Montanari clearly relishes her role in all of its exaggerated soapy glory and perfectly captures the cutthroat spirit of the fashion world she inhabits whilst feeling like an Argentinian version of Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington especially when she spits “Being a villainess is not a trend so try something else”. Other characters of note are principled make-up artist, Barbara, who befalls a fatal injury at the hands of Alexis. As a character, Barbara initially feels like someone who will have a larger role in the film’s proceedings but ultimately fades into the background before reappearing in the film’s final act. Whilst Crystal Eyes lacks a protagonist for its first half, model, Eva (played by Anahí Politi), comes into the fore in the film’s second half morphing into Alexis and inevitably attracting the attention of the killer. L’uccello’s twin nieces, Nadia and Nidia also attract, sinisterly flanking their aunt in mannequin like positions. The cast of characters at times feel as interchangeable as the mannequins in the shop front - a point made by one of the models herself who says “to be a model feels like being trapped in a shop window without escape”. Endelman and Montejano acknowledge the artifice of their characters both in their roles as models but also as cyphers to be slain for the gratification of the audience. In Crystal Eyes, back stories may be thin on the ground but that’s mostly in keeping for the genre they pay homage to which is frequently more concerned with stylised violence than character development. And speaking of homages, one of the film’s minor characters is sure to catch the interest of Italian horror fans - caretaker/security guard, Lucio with his milky blue eyes is a clear tribute to The Beyond (Fulci, 1981).

Crystal Eyes comprises of several murder set pieces in the spirit of the giallo taking place in the typical settings of car parks, concrete traverses and fashion boutiques. For the most part, the murder set pieces are very effective; cinematic in nature and high on drama. Endelman and Montejano clearly understand the mechanisms of the giallo and what makes for an effective set piece and deliver a series of well paced, suspenseful moments. The stalk and slash moments are executed successfully and whilst not high on gore, still have enough blood letting to satisfy genre fans. The film’s opening fashion show, which ends in horror, is the perfect introduction to Crystal Eyes’ 1980s inflected take on the giallo whilst the boutique murder scene perfectly encapsulates the genre’s fascination with the fetishisation of mannequins and fashion. Another stand out moment is the gruesome murder of L’uccello’s twin nieces, Nidia and Nadia, who once murdered in typically Argento like fashion, lie splayed out on a double bed holding hands in a gruesome tableau that gives a small indication of the killer’s identity. Whilst, not a murder set piece, Eva’s beautification ritual in her apartment is a beautifully shot purple hued, melancholic moment that gives Crystal Eyes some much needed breathing space whilst providing Endelman and Montejano’s film with its usual visual panache. 

The film’s climax is undoubtedly Crystal Eyes most grandiose set piece, taking place in a beautiful Argentinian turn of the century building to be used as the location for Alexis’ memorial fashion shoot. The macabre funeral staging, comprised of mourning mannequins, a perverse yet disconcerting tribute to Alexis which sets the stage for the killer’s vengeful climax. In the film’s most effectively violent death, a silver sculptural piece bird skewers Eva in giallo fashion where sculptural art often plays a pivotal role as seen in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento, 1970) and Tenebrae (Argento, 1982).

The killer’s motivations for the murders are vengeful but also psychological in nature as par the course for a genre obsessed with fragmentation of the psyche as the catalyst for one’s vengeful psychosis. Alexis’ brother, Matías is revealed to be the killer, the feminine like nature of his costume a visual diversion to his true identity and an indication of his character’s fusing with his sister - as foreshadowed in Nadia and Nidia’s death scene. Whilst we have little insight into Matias’ character and relationship with Alexis, what the film presents is sufficient enough as justification for what transpires on screen and Matías’ madness feels convincing thanks to Diego Benedetto’s flamboyant performance. There’s natural attempts at misdirection in Crystal Eyes through the bountiful list of potential suspects but they are quickly whittled down, leaving Barbara the makeup artist, disfigured by a wrathful Alexis, as the prime suspect. Thankfully Endelman and Leandro, forgo the obvious suspect whilst still making her relevant to the film’s ending when she is arrested for the murders, wrongly framed. However, in true genre form, Crystal Eyes concludes with a twist ending as Matías on arrival at a local hospital, murders the employees before escaping to continue on his vengeful mission. 

The killer’s design is naturally based on the conventional leather trench coat wearing killers of the giallo but with the added twist of a mannequin like, masked appearance. The killer approaches their victims with staccato like movements dispatching their victims in a sort of uncanny valley like way with unnatural movements and mannerisms; their face contorted in a fixed wide eyed way unmoved by the atrocities they commit. Their introduction in a designer boutique filled with mannequins in an array of 1980s fashions and poses is highly effective and forges the connection between the killer and the fashion world. The doll like mannerisms of the killer are accentuated by the mannequins that surround them that seem to take on their own human like qualities akin to the use of mannequins in Black Belly of the Tarantula (Cavara, 1971) and Spasmo (Lenzi, 1974). When Matías’ accomplice Hernan screams before he is murdered, one mannequin appears to be covering their ears shielding themselves from the deafening scream. 

Naturally, in a film indebted to the giallo, clear references are made to the genre’s visual tropes and infamous murder set pieces. The aforementioned design of the killer pays tribute to the genre’s iconic leather coat, fedora wearing gloved killer with a contemporary twist based on the genre’s fetishisation of mannequins. Whilst other generalised tropes such as the spiral staircase and straight edged razor as a murder weapon also come into play. Typically giallo like themes are also present with voyeurism, vengeance and pop psychology prominently featured. However, the vast majority of references to gialli are in relation to the films of Dario Argento and fans of Deep Red (Argento, 1975) will note the many allusions to the film from the bathtub murder to the premonitory coffee burn prefacing Alexis’ fiery demise. The use of a mirror shard as a jagged weapon is a fitting homage to Argento’s predilection with broken mirrors however, in the case of Crystal Eyes, this reference also fits the film’s own high fashion themes of reflective characters, faded glamour and artifice. The influence of Argento’s work extends to the film’s production design which is heavily indebted to the Italian director’s distinctive visual environments. Ruthless magazine editor, Lucia L’uccello’s office is a clear homage to supernatural horror, Suspiria (Argento, 1977), with its art nouveau style doorways and red, black and white geometric floor motif clearly modelled on Suspiria’s Tanzakademie. A sculpture, that sits on a side table, is a clear mock up of the crystal bird sculpture in Helena Markos’ ornate dwelling - a fitting object d’art for Lucia L’uccello whose name translates to bird (also a likely reference to Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). 

And Crystal Eyes’ sleek stylised production design is arguably the film’s greatest asset presenting a hyper-stylised depiction of the mid 1980s inspired by the bold fashion of the period. The obsession with 1980s haute couture and visual excess recalls Body Double (De Palma, 1984) and other De Palma films of the period alongside the sleek, high tech American yuppified cinema of the decade. The fashion based neon drenched setting also recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) and Crystal Eyes, whilst a different entity, fits nicely alongside the hyper stylised 80s and gialli indebted cinema that has emerged in the latter half of the 10s fusing horror and high fashion concepts. 

The majority of Crystal Eyes’ sets were lovingly constructed and designed by Endelman and Montejano and despite the film’s limited budget, it manages to feel high concept. One gets the sense that creating a cohesive visual style was of great importance to Endelman and Montejano and they pull their difficult stylistic brief off with great aplomb. Neo-giallo aren’t always successful in their attempts to recreate the historical period they pay homage to but in Crystal Eyes, Endelman and Montejano manage to successfully create hyper stylised environments full of neon signage, period technology and vintage posters that feel eighties inspired whilst retaining their own distinct sense of stylisation authentic for the high tech fashion world the film takes place within.

There are plenty of nods to the period from comparisons made by characters to Scarface’s Elvira Hancock to Patrick Nagel style imagery on hairspray cans and posters of Syd Brak’s airbrush art. Authentic props such as a vintage 1980s Pepsi ashtray can be seen in shot and it’s these small details that really sell the film’s 1980s aesthetic. Alongside the aforementioned production design that pays homage to the striking sets of Argento, there’s a wry nod to the genre’s beginnings, and the master of the thriller film himself, via the placement of Alfred Hitchcock books in the drawer of one of the twins.

There’s also great care and attention given to the film’s costuming and hair and make-up design to create authentic high fashion looks from the mid 1980s with characters that look like they’ve stepped outside of the pages of Italian Vogue circa 1985. Again, it’s these details, and slant towards the 1980s aesthetic, that make Crystal Eyes such a visual delight and sets it apart from other modern horror thrillers that cite giallo as an influence without necessarily exhibiting the visual flair of the genre, regardless of the period the film is set within. Of course, the giallo is intrinsically linked to the 1970s but it’s often the stylised nature of the genre that attracts interest and this was certainly evident in the Italian thrillers of the 1980s such as the aforementioned Nothing Underneath and thematic sequel Too Beautiful to Die (Piana, 1988) which, like the gialli of the seventies, showcased emerging and popular Italian fashion trends. 

Crystal Eyes rich 1980s soaked environments come alive under the cinematography of Cecilia Casas and Vanina Gottardi. There’s a real visual flair to their cinematography and the film’s direction is rarely static; comprising of dynamic varied shots from high angled looming shots to classic giallo POV shots. Characters skulk around car parks and dramatic staircases perfectly framed and followed by Casas and Gottardi’s roaming camera. Crystal Eyes is beautifully lit in candy coloured hues reminiscent of the kaleidoscopic lighting characterised by the gialli and Gothic horrors of Mario Bava whilst also feeling reflective of the fashion photography and music video imagery of the mid 1980s. Crystal Eyes may face criticism for being vacuous and an example of style over substance but that would be perhaps unfair as there’s a competent plot here, which despite being fairly straight forward, is still serviceable as an enjoyable whodunnit. Of course, the original gialli, were a testament to Italian style and modernity with the superficiality of the lifestyles of the bourgeoise characters who populated them a common theme which naturally draws comparison to Crystal Eyes and the superficial environment the characters exist within.

Many of the Neo-gialli that have emerged over the course of the last decade have been characterised by their electronic, synth laden scores, which at times, can feel somewhat derivative and jarring for films whose source material often had far more melodic, instrumental style scores. However, in Crystal Eyes, the driving electro synth based score, courtesy of Pablo Fuu, feels fitting for a film set in the eighties where synth based components became more prominent in popular music and horror film scores. The eighties inflected electronic soundtrack captures the excitement and glamour of the film’s opening fashion show in which the catchy female sung synth pop number reflects the vibrant, high octane fashion scene of the decade. The score is authentic feeling from its cheesy synth pop numbers to darker sounding, Goth inflected mid eighties Depeche Mode styled musical cues. As Eva beautifies herself in her apartment, a music video plays on the television screen the lyrics conveying the themes and ideas present in the film. The use of a music video like segment in a homage to the giallo inadvertently recalling a similar scene with Stefania Stella in Fatal Frames - Fotogrammi mortali (Festa, 1996). The song is made all the more striking by the decadent surroundings and visual composition of the shot perfectly marrying together to surmise the ideas at the heart of Crystal Eyes.

Crystal Eyes is a beautifully crafted and loving homage to the Italian giallo filtered through a lurid mid ‘80s sensibility drawing upon both the later period gialli of Carlo Vanzina and the established tropes of golden period gialli. Whilst the film doesn’t deviate too much from its giallo influenced template, it’s a well executed thriller instilled with a real sense of fun and vibrancy which makes it a joy to behold. A film rich in visual style, Crystal Eyes could easily be an exercise in artifice yet appearances can be deceptive and the film proves to be a successful film in its own right that uses its superficial setting to great effect and is sure to be a hit with both fans of and newcomers to the Italian giallo.

Crystal Eyes is now available to stream via the Arrow Video channel.

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  1. Couldn't resist reading this first before returning to Crystal Eyes for a second viewing (I intended to do it the other way round). You capture the essence perfectly, your words foregrounding the rich visual style of this stunning film without ignoring that it is held together by an intriguing plot. Can't wait to press play! Graham @SirTwinBeard

    1. Thank you so much, Graham! I appreciate you taking the time to read the piece and I'm happy to hear you feel like I captured it well. I enjoyed writing this and hope it puts the film on a few more people's watchlist. Let me know how you find your second watch!


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