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Evil Eye (2022) SFFF Review

Every so often, I get to see an international genre film like Evil Eye (Mal de Ojo) at the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival. Those are my favourite because it’s always really fun to see what kind of horror scares other cultures. And there’s a decent bet it would scare me too. Evil Eye was full of great horror sound, lighting and practical horror effects that made me squirm.

In modern-day Mexico, a 13-year-old girl named Nala (Paola Miguel, Viaje al Centro de la Tierra) and her little sister, Luna (Ivanna Sofia Ferro), pack off to see their grandma Josefa, played by prolific Mexican actor Ofelia Medina (No Man’s Land, El Hubiera Sí Existe) in the country. Luna is very sickly with what appears to be an advanced form of epilepsy. Their father Guillermo (Arap Bethke, Instructions Not Included) is reluctant, but their mother, Rebecca (Samantha Castillo, Huesera), has something else planned: she thinks the girls will be the better of an Abuela visit. She is relieved to get the girls away from an unexplained pandemic that has swept their entire building, making all the kids sick.

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To the country to visit Abuela, their parents are ostensibly accompanying them. Upon first meeting their Abuela Josefa, the eldest Nala, who is a typical adolescent unpleasant up to this point, is actually kind of polite. The whole family is extremely polite to their Abuela who the girls are meeting for the first time, and the only tip-off is when Guillermo, the husband, speaks. He exchanges pleasantries and when he calls her Mrs. Josefa, she insists on him calling her Josefa, because that makes her feel young. Hmmm.

However, quite quickly after the four arrive, the parents whisk themselves away on another errand. We are already given the impression that the girls’ mom could be a witch, so this is a pretty urgent errand concerning Luna’s health. This leaves the girls stranded with their Abuela and her help, a young local woman named Abigail (Paloma Alvamar, Hernán) and her boyfriend Pedro (Mauro González, S.O.Z: Soldados o Zombies). All three of them are definitely not what they first appear to be.

This sets Evil Eye’s story up nicely, and before the girls realize they are in danger, they hear a little ghost story from their Abuela’s help. Abigail has more than a few ghost stories to tell, but little do the girls know that they are listening to family history. Soon, before too long, weird stuff starts happening in a gorgeous 1920’s manor that evokes pure Mexican Gothic and probably has all kinds of ick shoved in the cracks. Pedro was cleaning the very gross old pool and “fell” in. Abuela blames Nala, and the two face off against each other in a power struggle. It’s a struggle where Nala’s agency decreases rapidly, and events spiral rapidly out of control.

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What I liked about Evil Eye, or what worked for me, was the sound, and the effects, and the acting, especially on the part of the kids, which all worked together to create that atmosphere for me. The pacing was good. There’s really a small window of time for director Isaac Ezban (The Similars, Parallels) to go from “Spoiled rich city kids with their iPhones” to creating real fear and finally hysteria when Nala starts to seriously suspect and then realize that her Abuela is a witch. And possibly also not who she claims to be?

Most important of all, the introduction that John Allison, the director of SFFF, gave to the film was that “la casa de la Abuela” is a character unto itself. And this is singular in describing the creepy manor in the Mexican countryside. The manor does an amazing job of creating atmosphere, with the stained-glass windows, dim lighting, and the ivy-covered exterior evoking the feeling of dread long before events. According to a zoom Q&A with Mr. Ezban after the film, Isaac mentioned that there was a lot of haunted goings-on prior to shooting. So, the producer actually hired a shaman in order to spiritually cleanse the house, which actually worked because there was nothing haunted after that. Incredible!

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What didn’t work for me with Evil Eye was perhaps the way the story was told. Where the story didn’t always work for me was with the incredible lust that the witches felt, and the resulting scene that I won’t spoil. But I felt like it was still a strong movie despite that. It was remarkable to see a movie where women had such agency, and where the boyfriends and dads really felt like set dressing. And related to that, I am completely ignorant of witch and voodoo magic traditions, so a lot of that part of the movie with rituals and sacrifices was a bit lost on me.

But the ending was where I had trouble. In attending the director’s Zoom Q&A after the film, Ezban discussed a type of “Sixth Sense” ending that he had also entertained doing for the film, and I wonder if that would have worked a little better for me. Mal de Ojo (Evil Eye) gets full marks for effects, acting, location, and creating atmosphere, but loses the thread a little bit with some of the stories.

I caught Mal de Ojo (Evil Eye) at the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival where it took the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature Film. And if you’re evil eye wants to watch more films like this, FilmTagger can suggest some titles.

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