Our reviews of See No Evil (2006) (published December 15th, 2006), See No Evil (2006) (Blu-ray) (published August 21st, 2009), and See No Evil: The Story Of The Moors Murders (published April 23rd, 2008) are also available.
"Life's going to get very difficult, Uncle George, if you keep trying to eliminate the verb 'to see' from your vocabulary."—Sarah (Mia Farrow)
Cameras are all about seeing. Therefore, movies about blind people have an inherent problem. Watching them, we are always made aware that somehow, no matter what the camera does, we cannot empathize with these characters. And it does not help that most blind characters in cinema are sentimentalized, perhaps because the director, in command of that objectifying gaze of the camera, is inclined to feel pity.
Case in point: Richard Fleischer's 1971 thriller, See No Evil. From the very first moments, we are reminded that the director has control over what we see. We follow a pair of distinctive cowboy boots through the street. The camera keeps pausing over signs of violence—a toy gun, a violent television show—as if to hammer home the point that the owner of these boots is sinister, a potential monster. A heavy-handed score by Elmer Bernstein pounds in our ears. When the cowboy boots are splashed with water from a passing Mercedes, the boots begin stalking, plotting revenge.
Yes, the boots. The bad guy in See No Evil has no discernable personality, other than his boots. Perhaps this is to suggest the arbitrary nature, the very ubiquity, of his evil. Of course, for this to work, we would need a sympathetic protagonist with whom we can face the sheer facelessness of evil.
Unfortunately, we have Sarah (Mia Farrow). Blinded in a riding accident (which apparently left the rest of her face and body completely free of injury), Sarah has returned to her aunt and uncle's country manor, perhaps to practice her inconsistent English accent. After a day out riding with her boyfriend (Norman Eshley), she spends the second act of the film wandering around the empty manor house, conveniently missing the bloody corpses lying around. This is presumably intended to be suspenseful, as is Sarah's later attempts to escape from the boot-wearing killer when he returns to recover an incriminating piece of evidence (which a dying character conveniently shows up to point out to Sarah just in time).
Conveniently: that is the key word here. Doors swing shut just in time. Boyfriend Steve and friends show up just at the right moment to rescue Sarah after some gypsies, in a frustrating red herring, decide to dump her in a clay pit. Everything is just very convenient.
It might work if we were to empathize with Sarah, to gasp whenever she comes close to danger. But Fleischer, who normally knows better as a director, seems hell bent on taunting Sarah and the audience with visual flourishes that remind us that, whatever happens, we are not a part of Sarah's experience. Every scene is filled with eye-popping colors, autumn leaves swirl aggressively, and the camera often watches voyeuristically from a distance rather than closing in on Sarah's limited frame of reference. We know too much about what is going on, but without a strong villain or hero, it is hard to care much about how it will turn out.
And that critical distance tends to make Sarah's increasingly dangerous series of close-calls almost comically absurd rather than terrifying. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, tragedy is when I cut my finger, or at least when you sympathize with that pain. Comedy is when you—or at least someone with whom you cannot empathize—falls into an open sewer and dies. In keeping us at a distance throughout the film, See No Evil only succeeds in being a minor league thriller. And watched in the right frame of mind, the film can actually be strangely funny. Although I am guessing it was not meant to be.
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