Eight Eyes - Fantasia World Premiere
Director: Austin Jennings
Starring: Emily Sweet, Bradford Thomas, Bruno Veljanovski
Written by: Matthew Frank, Austin Jennings
Produced by: Milos Djukelic, Matt Manjourides, Justin A. Martell
Cinematography by: Sean Dahlberg
An American couple embark on an impromptu sightseeing expedition in Eastern Europe but become increasingly disturbed by their guide's unsettling fixation on them.
Have you ever found yourself restless and channel surfing in the dead of night, traversing through channel after channel encountering ads for "greatest love songs" compilation CDs where Michael Bolton's voice threatens to wake up the entire neighbourhood. Or when you come across an old sitcom that was cancelled halfway through its second season complete with poorly aged jokes. On this mindless odyssey you sometimes stumble upon a foreign film, unsettling and morbid yet enthralling but you can't put your finger on the reason why. That's the kind of film 'Eight Eyes' is.
Set in Serbia and Macedonia, Austin Jennings' directorial debut follows a married couple's trip through Eastern Europe that gets sidetracked when they encounter a seemingly friendly local man who offers to take them on a tour through the local area. As you can probably predict things take a turn and the couple fall foul to their new friend's nefarious intentions.
Right from the opening shot we get a flavour of what Jennings has in store for us as the camera pans from the night sky to a fire containing a dismembered head that burns over the opening credits. Shot on glorious 16MM film, the look of the film plays a major role in the drab and unsettling mood that Jennings attempts to instil. This low grade look ties perfectly into the kind of story Jennings is trying to tell as it is a real throwback to exploitation horror from the 70s that you would find across Europe. It is no coincidence that Jennings is the director of 'The Last Drive-In' TV show as 'Eight Eyes' is exactly the kind of film you could hear Joe Bob Briggs rhyme off his Drive-In totals to. Having said that, it doesn't overcome the flaws that these kinds of films have hard coded in them as it is rough around the edges with some inconsistent pacing throughout.
What does work in its favour is how Jennings takes full advantage of the film's locations as the brutal and industrial based architecture paints a picture of a harsh and oppressive environment, making it feel like another world, not just to the New York based couple at the centre of the film but the audience too. Isolated and far from home, they are at the whim of their guide. Knowing full well his intentions aren't pure you sit and wait to see what is going to happen.
For his debut performance, Bruno Veljanovski does a fine job as the guide with a sinister edge, Saint Peter. He carries a threatening presence throughout which even seeps out in his moments of kindness. Opposite him Emily Sweet and Bradford Thomas provide solid performances as the married couple Cass and Gav. They do their best with the material presented but you can't help but feel like they are being held back as their characters feel very underwritten. It almost feels like the script is more invested in the mystery at the heart of the story rather than the development of the characters.
Although the opening half of the film is a slow burn the manner in which it teases elements of folk horror holds your attention through some of the slower moments. It is the mystery of what is on the dark horizon for Cass and Gav that makes you lean in a bit closer to pick up on every detail presented but it doesn't prepare you for what transpires in the wildly psychedelic finale. This latter half of the film promises to go full exploitation in the vein of Eastern Europe's answer to 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' but for those expecting an overflow of blood and guts it feels somewhat restrained. During moments where this should be prevalent there are quick cuts that don't even elicit shock that fall flat.
For his debut Austin Jennings shows promise as a filmmaker as he expresses his warts and all love of exploitation in the film. It may not set the world on fire as it is the kind of film we've seen dozens of times before but it is a fine bit of homage. He shows great dedication in his world building and the atmosphere he tries to create that overcomes the shortcomings in the script and pacing. If you catch it on the right channel at the right time of night, it might just enthral you.
- Joseph McElroy
'Eight Eyes' received its World Premiere at Fantasia '23 on August 4th.