Culturally, we’re obsessed with motherhood, specifically, with ideas of being a good mother. Many horror movies locate as the bedrock of their terror the friction created by the act of fighting the pull to be a bad or failing mother. Films as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Ring, and Hereditary show us women desperately trying to be good, because nobody wants to be a bad mother, nobody wants to end up like their own mother. In face of and within this cultural obsession with goodness versus badness, Isaac Ezban-directed horror Evil Eye (Mal de ojo) is an endlessly compelling and refreshing addition.
A lush, terrifying delight, Evil Eye unrepentantly presents us with a world wherein not only does good motherhood necessitate a kind of badness, but also one wherein women relish in their badness. In building up the trope of the bad mother to unprecedented heights, this Mexican gem is strident and unforgettable as it shows us what it would look like to not only be a bad mother, but also how much more fun there is to be had in moral murkiness.
With a screenplay by Junior Rosario, Edgar San Juan, and Ezban, and under Ezban’s direction, the film follows two sisters, 13-year-old Nala (Paola Miguel) and six-year-old Luna (Ivanna Sofia Ferro), left in the care of their grandmother Josefa (Ofelia Medina), as the parents go off to find a cure for Luna. Suffering from a mysterious autoimmune disorder, Luna is liable to have seizures during the night and needs constant vigilance. Her parents have exhausted every professionally-prescribed medical avenue, and leave the girls in the Mexican countryside as they venture off to find an alternative treatment for their beloved child. As the days crawl along, Nala becomes increasingly uneasy as Josefa becomes increasingly violent and abusive toward the two girls, cutting them off from communication with their mother. As Nala learns from her grandmother’s housekeeper of witches and the legend of the Bacá — a malignant spirit that, according to voodooism, expects high payment in return for a wish granted — she begins suspecting their grandmother of being a witch. As the plot takes thrilling turns, it never fails to keep us on edge as to whether the headstrong Nala is right or whether she’s being dramatic, blowing Josefa’s old-school ways out of proportion.
There is a mightily strong feminine force running wonderfully amok within this movie, carried through by bold performances in turn by Miguel, Ferro, and Medina. The plot rejoices between the tension between Medina’s obstinate Josefa whose mysteriousness conceals a potential violence, and Miguel’s irreverent and equally obstinate Nala, who pushes back against the de facto power of a malicious adult. The women in this movie are captivating for their strength, their bite and their ability to bite back. Compellingly portrayed and well-lived in, the women of Evil Eye are marvelous, unapologetic, and more often than not, beautifully terrifying.
The atmosphere of the film, too, is as gripping as the women it contains. With cinematography by Isi Sarfati and music by Camilla Uboldi, we are held willfully captive in an immersive and sensual world, one we feel we can touch if we reach out for it. The sweetness of fresh fruit, the sweltering sun, a record spinning on an old gramophone within sepia-tinged shadows. Nala’s story is oftentimes punctuated by the tale of the Bacá she is told, which takes a deceptively familiar fairytale-like form: As two sisters turn against better judgment to a beautiful Caribbean witch for help curing their third sister, we are shown a rich and roiling myth that never settles on a happy ending, rather it’s one wherein a woman deceives so that she might stay young and beautiful, sapping energy from children simply because she can. The direness of the myth is carried through to Nala’s plane effectively; as Josefa’s appearance becomes increasingly bandaged up and Luna’s situation worsens, we hold our breaths wondering whether a woman could indeed hurt an adorable child.
And this is where the ideas of bad and good mothers are brilliantly subverted by Evil Eye. Through a lush and vibrant landscape and jaw-droppingly brilliant performances, we are shown a world wherein good girls and women do bad things for good ends, bad girls and women who do good things for bad ends, and good girls and women becoming bad and vice versa. The film seems to muddle badness and goodness, leaving us as viewers ultimately never certain of where any of the characters — the girls’ parents, Josefa, the housekeeper, and ultimately even Nala — in this movie lie morally.
But the thing is, so much of Evil Eye’s thrilling brilliance lies in showing the deliciously mischievous ways there are to be a woman. The film ultimately infuses the fear of being a bad mother with a thrill like few other movies can, casting badness as something every mother must try her hand at for the sake of her kids. Josefa isn’t your typical warm and nurturing grandmother, for she casts a hungry gaze upon her daughter as she has sex with her husband, and Nala’s mother, too, seems brazen and dark, joyously running her hands over her husband’s body, leaving her kids with a steely Josefa, and lashing out impatiently at Nala.
Ultimately, Evil Eye is immersive and captivating, hurling us as viewers into a world where women take immense pleasure in witchcraft, in their own beauty, and sex, and whether this makes one a bad mother then so be it, the film seems to say. Unlike Hereditary, there seems to be no guilt here attendant to being bad or seeking out the aid of witchcraft, only perhaps an understanding that a great price must be paid for making requests of the Bacá. Evil Eye seems to not care for goodness or badness when it comes to motherhood, understanding that being in the world, with all its magic and our own messy motivations, is never as simple as the clean lines of good or bad. This film is ultimately viscerally terrifying for how refreshing it is with its feminine grotesqueries, and for this reason it’s unmissable and empowering.