Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother simultaneously convinced me that the 26-year-old debut filmmaker has talent to spare, but also that his abilities could be put to better use. The brief (77 minute) horror picture, which is shot in gorgeous black and white, is visually sumptuous, well acted and unsettling, but also aimless and quick to fall back on overly familiar horror tropes, rather than digging for something deeper.

The film’s opening scenes show the most promise. A truck driver barreling down a lonesome road spots a woman from afar hobbling alone. We then cut to a desolate farmhouse in the countryside where a young girl named Francisca (played as a girl by Olivia Bond) is being raised by her immigrant mother, a former surgeon in Portugal whose specialty is the eye, and quiet father.

In the film’s most effectively disturbing sequence, a strange man on the road asks if he can use the house’s bathroom and Francisca’s mother, against her own good judgment, lets him in, leading to grave consequences. This scene alone should give viewers nightmares and it’s with some disappointment that the rest of the picture fails to live up to it. Francisca’s father returns home and the drifter ends up chained in the family’s barn.

Time passes and Francisca (now played by Kika Magalhaes) appears to be living with the corpse of her father, whom she bathes and snuggles with on the sofa. The drifter, now eyeless and with vocal chords cut, is still chained up in the barn. Persons unfortunate enough to cross Francisca’s path end up finding themselves in the same situation or worse. One of the victims is a woman and her infant child, whom Francisca steals and tries to raise as her own, until the boy discovers his real mother (unbeknownst to him) in the barn.

There’s a decent amount that could have been done with this story, but Francisca (often viewed in overhead, omniscient observer shots that distance you from her) is mostly a cypher. She’s merely the traumatized kid who grows up to be a sociopath and, well, keeps people chained up in her barn.

Visually, the haunting black and white cinematography also mercifully mutes some of the visuals that would have been more grotesque in color. The picture is also purposefully slow in nature and the mostly static compositions and long shots are aimed to give the impression of a Norman Rockwell painting with a serial killer as its subject.

But the story dutifully follows the cliches of a movie of this type, rather than trying to explore Francisca’s character with any sense of depth. Magalhaes gives an almost otherworldly performance as the villain/protagonist, but her character is underwritten. When she questions the drifter who killed her mother as to why he did so, he tells her essentially that it gave him a rush. And when she asks why he picked their house, his answer is similar to that of a question posed in The Strangers, another horror movie for which I didn’t feel the love that others did.

Ultimately, The Eyes of My Mother looks good, but has less filling. Pesce has obvious talent as a filmmaker, but I hope that next time his impressive visual style will be wedded to material that is more deserving.

Watch the Eyes of My Mother trailer below: