Back in 2016, I stumbled upon a movie called The Eyes of My Mother and it completely knocked me on my ass and lingered in my head for weeks. A horror fan of over 30 years, it takes a lot to disturb me, but that movie bored into my brain and I can still recall specific imagery from it, even now. I’m sure this will eventually change but I’ve only watched it once because it was such a singular experience that I don’t want to damper by watching it a second time.
But what it also did was announce an incredibly original and ambitious new voice in the horror genre. Someone who was willing to film a movie in black and white, stylized as a foreign film and filled with idiosyncratic moments and disturbing imagery. It was an ambitious debut. And now writer/director Nicholas Pesce is back with a new film and I’m happy to say, for me, he’s two for two.
Piercing is a delicious comedy served pitch black.
Before the movie even begins, Pesce firmly establishes that we’re in the era of 70s grindhouse. Piercing begins with the iconic vintage “Feature Presentation” logo and as we see the production companies involved, the images are scratchy. It’s like the opening of any grindhouse movie that’s played through one too many projectors or through one too many VHS players. And sure, as the movie begins, those trappings fall away; but it’s a wink and a nod to what we’re going to experience.
And boy. Does it establish the tone. Piercing opens with a mewling baby in a crib as an ice pick slowly enters the shot, pointed towards the kid. The hand holding the pick belongs to Reed (Christopher Abbott), the father, who quickly pulls back, as if realizing just what he was about to do. He flees to the bathroom where he chokes himself to relieve his apparent need and pressure. But it’s obvious that this is a bandage. Dude is going to snap and kill someone. Probably someone important to him.
So he plans a business trip, kisses his wife Mona (Laia Costa) and heads off to a hotel to prepare to murder someone. It’s obvious he’s been methodically planning how to do it, scribbling notes and timings down in his journal. He knows it has to be a prostitute who will be into S&M, that way he can tie her up. And then “The Girl from Ipanema” starts to play as he mimics just how he’s going to kill her. And while there’s no visuals to accompany his murderous show, the music is mixed with the disturbing sound effects of sawing body parts and spurting blood, as he pantomimes just how he’s going to do the dirty deed. The dichotomy of the cheerful and mundane music mixed with the sound effects is darkly humorous and the first indicator that we’re actually in a comedy.
And so he times the murder. Plans everything down to the last second. But what his plans didn’t account for was Mia Wasikowska’s Jackie. Someone who might be as deranged as he is. And who has plans of her own. Someone who might be picking up Reed’s murderous vibes and pushes the envelope by grabbing a pair of scissors and begins jamming them into her thigh, over and over until it’s a bloody mess.
Then things get really fucked up…
Nicholas Pesce wears his inspirations proudly on his sleeve. As suggested earlier, we’re right in the middle of the 70s cinema. While the movie has an almost indistinguishable setting that kind of reminds me of how It Follows established its own little world, it looks old school with a modern veneer. Bright yellows, reds and blacks that offer a sharp contrast from his previous film. Like 70s Nouveau mixed with Art Deco, with a modern finish.
Abbott’s Reed looks like a stereotypical ad man; Don Draper with murderous intent. Wasikowska’s Jackie is a blonde femme fatale who is introduced in a fantastic split screen as she rides to the hotel in a taxi, all set to Goblin’s “Profondo Rosso” theme from Deep Red. Jackie tugs on her black leather gloves as if she’s a murderess in a Giallo film and has a coy smiles that belies what she’s capable of doing or how far she’s willing to take it.
Pesce has been accused of style over substance in The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing won’t change people’s minds. But I’m honestly here for it. Piercing is a complete 180 from his debut film, awash in bright colors and a darkly subversive sense of humor. It’s effective at making me jerk back in revulsion one moment and then shaking my head in wry shame after laughing at something deeply inappropriate. It is an ode to auteurs like Takashi Miike, who dabble in the darkly profane but add a wink and a nudge of dark comedy. This inspiration probably isn’t too surprising, considering Piercing is based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, who also wrote Audition.
But it also mingles in the Italian horror and giallo films of the 70s. I’m sure the above image of the cigarette and close-up on an eye is no accidental homage to Fulci’s obsession with eyes. And of course there’s the score; or lack of one. Instead, Pesce utilizes tracks from giallo films like Deep Red, Tenebrae but also more obscure works, like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times.
I found Piercing to be an audacious sophomore film from Nicholas Pesce. And while I don’t love it as much as I did The Eyes of My Mother, I really appreciated what it was going for and I think it helps cements Pesce as an emerging and signature voice in the genre. It actually makes me excited to see what he’s going to do with The Grudge.