While Europe has long been a great place to look for well-made horror films, the Netherlands has never been a country that made much of a mark in horror, excepting of course the work of Dick Maas. That said, writer/director Elbert von Strien looks to change that distinction with his film Two Eyes Staring, a fantastic modern ghost story that still manages to feel a little gothic.
Nine-year-old Lisa (Isabelle Stokkel) is a pretty quiet girl, content to keep to herself. Her detachment from the world is mirrored in her detachment from her mother, Christine (Hadewych Minis), a woman who looks at Lisa as if she’s someone else. While not exactly cold, Christine is somehow guarded around Lisa, a fact that hasn’t escaped the little girl’s attention. Luckily Lisa has a good relationship with her father, Paul (Barry Atsma). When Christine’s mother passes away and leaves her home to her daughter despite their estrangement, the family decides to pick up and move from Holland to Belgium. Christine’s childhood home is a big, old house hiding plenty of secrets, and when Lisa starts interacting with a ghost in the house, her mother’s mysterious past is slowly revealed.
Two Eyes Staring is a ballsy film. It’s a bold decision to make a ghost story and then show the ghost full on in the first 30 minutes. And not just that but to continue to show the ghost, no shadows, no quick cuts or glimpses, just full scenes of Lisa sitting next to the ghost talking is big decision to make. Luckily, it pays off in spades. While it often works better to leave things like that up to the audience’s imagination, there’s something additionally unsettling about it being so present and in-your-face. Each scene with ghost and creepy and uncomfortable adding to the overall atmosphere of the film.
Stokkel is particularly impressive in the role of Lisa. Finding good child actors and then directing them well is always a challenge, but Stokkel takes the difficult material and puts in a fantastic performance. Minis is also very good as Christine, balancing the character’s drive and desire for success in her career with her somewhat faux affection for her daughter. It’s a difficult line to walk, trying to be convincing while portraying conflicting or false emotions but Minis does it with confidence.
In addition the acting and storytelling, the film is also technically well-made. The lighting and framing contribute to an overall sense of professionalism. This is top-notch cinematography painting beautiful pictures on the screen. The beautiful old house lends itself well to pretty footage, but it’s cinematographer Guido van Gennep’s lights and lenses that really make it pop. The house and the ghost within also give the film a bit of a gothic flair. The old house with vines starting to overtake some walls gives the film a sense of age as does the plot’s focus on the past which contributes to an overall feeling of a period film despite the modern setting.
Two Eyes Staring is an excellent film, combining great storytelling and acting with impressive filmmaking on a technical level. It takes kind of a risk with the way it chooses to show the ghost so fully and so often, but it works for the story and only adds to the disturbing atmosphere and sense of dread. With this, Elbert von Strien has crafted a stellar ghost story.
The Upside: A superb ghost story. Makes the bold decision to show the ghost outright, leaving nothing to the imagination, a gamble that pays off in spades. Fantastic performances, particularly from Hadewych Minis and Isabelle Stokkel.
The Downside: Some may find it a bit slow and may not appreciate the ending in the context of the rest of the film, and while I personally disagree, they are both valid positions.
On the Side: Charlize Theron has purchased the rights to produce and star in a remake of the film here in the States.