Posts Tagged ‘horror films’

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

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Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

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It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

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The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

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As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

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A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

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The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

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The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

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The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

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There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

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In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!

Ghost Stories

Posted: April 23, 2018 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. Starring Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman.

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Phillip Goodman (Nyman) is a professor who specialises in debunking fraudulent mediums and explaining the unexplainable. He wants to prevent people’s lives being ruined by superstition, and was inspired by a 1970s paranormal investigator named Charles Cameron, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances decades ago, and is now believed dead.

When Goodman is contacted by the very much still alive Cameron he’s thrilled, but when he visits the old man in a ramshackle caravan, he is dismayed to learn that Cameron now believes in the supernatural. He passes three cases he could never debunk to Goodman, challenging him to explain them.

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The first involves a night watchman (Whitehouse) who encountered something unearthly in a disused sanatorium, the second is a teenager (Lawther) whose life has been turned upside down after he drove into something inhuman in the woods. Finally there is a rich financier (Freeman) who was plagued by a poltergeist on the eve of the birth of his child.

Goodman can explain each incident, but is he merely deluding himself? Is the supernatural actually real, and if so will Goodman survive his own encounter with the paranormal?

 

For those of us of a certain age, there are fond memories of kind of portmanteau horror stories that used to be on BBC2 late on a Friday or Saturday night. Best known producer of such films was Amicus productions, who churned out multiple such films in the 1960s and 70s, films like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Such films usually followed a familiar pattern, a series of stories linked by a framing story that would invariably contain a twist in the tale. Of course even before Amicus got in on the act there’d been the 1945 Ealing classic Dead of Night. There have been American takes on this too; Creepshow for example, but for me it’s those old British chillers I have affection for, and so on a purely nostalgic basis I was excited to see Ghost Stories.

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Adapted by Nyman and Dyson from their own stage play I can’t call Ghost Stories an unqualified success, but even beyond a nostalgic yearning for those old-fashioned portmanteaus, there’s enough here to make this a scarily enjoyably film, just not a perfect one.

As with any anthology, in film or print, some stories work better than others, and the first two tales on offer represent the highlights of the film. Once you get past expecting him to go all Fast Show on you, Whitehouse is actually very good as the night-watchman all alone yet not really alone. There’s a palpable sense of unease as he makes his rounds through the dilapidated building, and the directors really ratchet up the tension here. They almost take it too far, there’s a limit to how long you can conceivably stay on the edge of your seat waiting for the scare you know is coming, but they stay just the right side of it.

The second story is almost as creepy, especially once you factor in Goodman’s visit to the teenager’s house which is genuinely unsettling. Anyone who’s seen the Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance will know how well Lawther can do on the edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown levels of terror, and Nyman and Dyson make good use of it here, it’s a wonderfully fragile performance from Lawther and the lonely forest makes an equally scary counterpoint to the deserted sanatorium.

Sadly it’s kind of downhill from this point. Freeman is very good but the third tale feels limp in comparison to the first two (though there is one really effective jump scare as Goodman and Freeman’s character walk the moors) and from here on the film enters its final act and reveals the twist, and this is where the film falls down, because the ending has a bit too much going on, it feels baggy and in some respects unearned. There are elements that are utterly predictable (seriously if you don’t see one particular twist coming a mile away you need to go to Spec Savers) and others that aren’t nearly predictable enough, although there is a lot of foreshadowing and it’s possible that I might appreciate the final act more upon second viewing.

At times genuinely terrifying, with great performances, assured direction and a palpable sense of old school dread, there’s a lot to like here, I just wish the second half of the film had lived up to the opening segments, but that’s anthologies for you.

Anyway, I must go, it’s time for me to tell my story to Peter Cushing and my other fellow travellers on this old steam train. As for Ghost Stories, it’s flawed but recommended.

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“Who are you calling a hobbit?”

Raw

Posted: April 14, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

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And this is what happens when you stick Lego up your nose.

Justine (Marillier) is on her way to college to train as a vet. Her parents attended the same college, and her older sister Alexia (Rumpf) is already partway through her studies there. Justine and Alexia were raised as vegetarians by their parents, but when Justine arrives she finds that an intense hazing ritual awaits all new students, or rookies as they’re known, and part of this involves the initiates having to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, but Alexia persuades her to do it.

Soon after Justine begins to feel unwell, she develops a rash which she presumes is an allergic reaction to eating meat. A little while later and she starts to develop an unusual craving…

 

Up until about a week ago I had no idea this film existed, and in a world of franchise blockbusters it’s a pleasant surprise that this did actually make it to my local multiplex given its a/subtitled and b/is a female skewed cannibal film.

Although the first thing to make clear is that ‘French cannibal film’ really doesn’t do this justice. Exceptionally well directed its truly mesmerising to watch, and acting wise both Marillier and Rumpf are superb. In particular Marillier gives one heck of a performance, switching from virginal and timid to sexy and confident and then back again, and the shifts in her personality never seen forced.

Setting aside the more lurid elements of the film, this is a story about finding your place in the world, about growing up and discovering just what kind of person you want to be. It’s about those first painful days at university when you’re alone, trying to make new friends and trying not to miss home. It’s about being out of your comfort zone, about exploring your sexuality and about fitting in, or choosing not to fit in.

The easiest point of reference I can make to this film is the Canadian werewolf film Ginger Snaps (which if you haven’t seen you should really see!) which again featured sisters coming of age, and again featured appetites that are, shall we say not the norm. Just imagine Ginger Snaps without the werewolves, which is something of a recurring motif for Raw, because in many ways it’s a zombie film that features no zombies, a vampire film sans bloodsuckers.

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The first rule of Bite Club is, you don’t talk about Bite Club!

Which isn’t to suggest Raw is a strictly speaking a horror film, although obviously in many ways it is, but like the best horror films it’s more than just a scary movie, and it has something to say. It’s exceptionally dark, evocative, disturbing, sexy, funny, and shocking. At times you want to look away, not because something is happening on screen, but because of what you imagine could happen at any moment. It’s an unsettling film because you’re always on edge, and in part this is why it’s so enthralling (along with the performances).

Rumours abound that, much like the Exorcist or Robocop when they first came out, people were fainting/vomiting in the aisles. I can’t say I ever quite felt like doing either, but at times this is a wince inducing film, and not always in the moments you might imagine. The bit where Justine scratches her rash is one of the most grimace inducing bits of the film, as is a waxing scene. There’s disturbing imagery at play outside of the more horrific elements. The scene with students crawling through an underground carpark is genuinely unsettling, and with this being a veterinary school there are a lot of scenes featuring animals which again put you on edge without you knowing why.

If it has a flaw I’d say it was a touch impenetrable at first, it did take me a little while to get into it, but that might be more to do with me acclimatising to the subtitles rather than anything the film does or doesn’t do. Suffice to say that after a while I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which given what was often happening on screen says a lot for how enthralling it is.

Proving yet again (if it even needed proving) that women can make films that are every bit as unsettling (if not more so) as blokes, this is a treat. Oh, and it has a great soundtrack too.

It isn’t a film for everyone, but I really, really liked it. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m feeling a trifle peckish all of a sudden…

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It’s going to take more than Persil to get these stains out…

The Witch

Posted: March 17, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie.

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In 17th Century New England a man named William (Ineson) is sent into exile after disagreement with the religious leaders of the Puritan plantation that he and his family have been living at. William sets off with his wife Katherine (Dickie) his daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) son Caleb, and young twins Mercy and Jonas. They locate a patch of land close to some woods and build a farmhouse there. After a while Katherine gives birth to a fifth child, Samuel.

One day Thomasin is playing with the baby when Samuel vanishes. William blames the child’s loss on wolves, but several within the family believe the baby was taken by a witch. As time passes and blight strikes their crops, hunger and paranoia see the notion that the family is cursed grow. But who is to blame? Is it Thomasin, whose own pubescence causes issues, or is it the twins who converse with one of the family’s goats, Black Phillip, or could it be that there is an external cause, a malevolent force living deep in the darkened woods?

And so Robert Eggers writing and directorial debut arrives trailing plaudits and awards from the Sundance film festival and cloaked in an advertising campaign that perhaps doesn’t do it any favours, emphasising the horror elements without necessarily preparing viewers for what they’re going to see.

I’ve heard reports of people walking out or being very unhappy when the lights came up. This isn’t to suggest The Witch is an especially nasty film, it’s not (or at least no worse than most other horror films) but it isn’t quite the film it’s billed as (which isn’t any kind of fault of the film makers). I knew little about the film but I was at least prepared for what kind of film it is.

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot to like about The Witch. The second thing to say is that it’s a hard film to like. If those two things seem at odds with one another, well I’m sorry but that’s just how it is.

First the good. The film features a truly terrifying soundtrack that’s unsettling on its own, let alone when you play it over brooding shots of deep dark woods. Eggers chose his location well, and the woods are practically a character in themselves; unsettling even when only seen in the background.

The small cast do a good job all round, even the two youngsters playing the twins who are wonderfully annoying. Harvey Scrimshaw is good as the conflicted Caleb, troubled by his own perceived sin and terrified that he’s going to go to hell, and Ineson and Dickie bring all of their experience to bear as the puritan parents, who love their children yet are hamstrung by their own religious paranoia. The standout however is Taylor-Joy who, going on this evidence, is going to have a very successful career. She’s perfect as the poor benighted Thomasin, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood struggling to find her place in the world and haunted by the loss of her baby brother while she was supposed to be watching him. Remove her and the film wouldn’t work half as well.

Eggers and his crew have also recreated 17th Century New England and its people to perfection, even going as far as to draw on historical sources for the dialogue.

Unfortunately the authentic period setting and dialogue works as much against the film as for it. At times this world seems a little impenetrable, and in particular the language makes it hard to truly engage with. It’s a slow burn of a film as well, and because it’s played so completely straight, at times it treads a very fine line (as horror often does) between what is frightening, and what is ludicrous, and there are certain elements, like the hare and Black Phillip, that are liable to make some audience members laugh rather than scream.

When it works though the film is genuinely unsettling and I do plan to watch it again on the small screen where its effect may well be magnified. It is be lauded for trying to do something a little bit different and it does make a pleasant change from most modern horror, but sadly, at least on first viewing, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I expected to.

Oculus

Posted: June 25, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Mike Flanagan. Starring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane.

Tim (Thwaites) has just been released from the mental institute where he’s been for eleven years since he shot and killed his father (who had tortured and murdered his mother.) He’s spent that time accepting the reality of the events that transpired on that final evening in the family home, and that no supernatural forces were at play, it was simply a case that his father went insane and killed his mother.

He’s met by his older sister, Kaylie (Gillan). Whilst physiatrists have spent years dismantling Tim’s apparent delusions about a possessed mirror, and rebuilding his psyche to accept a rational explanation for the events that occurred eleven years ago, Kaylie has spent the time obsessively researching the dark history of the antique mirror that she still firmly believes was responsible for the death of their parents.

Now she’s used her position working at an auction house to gain temporary possession of the said mirror. She’s planning to take it back to the family home where she hopes to prove that her father was not insane, and that it was supernatural forces that drove him to acts of violence against his family. Reluctantly Tim accompanies her to discover she has set up cameras, temperature gauges and motion sensors inside the house. Kaylie thinks she’s fully prepared for whatever might happen. Tim thinks she’s delusional.

On the surface Oculus seems fairly familiar fare. A family tragedy in the past- check; psychologically damaged survivors of said tragedy- check; an evil object capable of possessing the living- check; an abandoned house- check; violence and blood- check.

That Oculus is better than many of the generic horror films it appears to riff off of is testament to a decent script, inventive direction and a good cast.

Although it relies on the odd jump scare, for the most part Oculus takes the more difficult, but more rewarding route of creating an unsettling atmosphere, which means when things do occur they’re all the scarier for it. It’s a creepy film and, whilst it doesn’t bear much relation to it, I couldn’t help thinking of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness whilst watching it. Like Carpenter Flanagan creates an air of dread, and the Carpenter’eque pared back electronic score further cements the comparison.

The film also eschews a linear narrative to flit back and forth between the present and the past, and the scenes of the family’s disintegration are as compelling as the scenes in the present day, in fact often they’re more harrowing given that we see Tim and Kaylie as children. As the film progresses past and future appear to become intertwined, to the point where, at times, the older Tim talks to the younger Kaylie and the older Kaylie talks to the younger Tim without any awareness that they’re separated by time. It’s a neat technique for further confusing the issue of just what is going on. What’s clear from the off in Oculus is that what you think you see often isn’t what’s really going on.

Her American accent is a trifle odd, and yes I did keep expecting Matt Smith to pop out at any moment, but Karen Gillan puts in a good central performance as the driven and obsessive Kaylie. As her brother Thwaites conveys his character’s sense of confusion admirably as he goes from disbelief back to acceptance once he understands that Kaylie may have a point. It should be noted that Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan do sterling work as the younger Tim and Kaylie as well.

Rory Cochrane as the dad plays unhinged well, and manages to portray both a loving father and a homicidal maniac equally well. The star of the show, however, for me is Katee Sackhoff who takes her character through a gamut of emotions; At first she’s a happy, loving wife and mother, before becoming increasingly paranoid, disgusted with herself and eventually manic, and by the end she’s scarier than the dad is.

The twisty non-linear nature of the story does mean that, by the end, things become a little too confused, and if you can’t see the end coming a mile away you probably weren’t paying attention. The ending is also a little sudden. In addition the more you see of the ‘ghosts’ the less creepy they become, although these are common problems amongst a lot of horror films, and Oculus manages to go further than most before derailing somewhat.

Despite its flaws Oculus is still more inventive than most modern horror films, and whilst it does shout “Boo!” at you at times, and it does show blood and gore, these are never its central selling points. This is a film that wants to creep you out more than it wants to make you jump, or make you wince, and it succeeds more times than it fails.

Mirror Mirror on the wall, what’s the best horror film I’m seen in a while? (Yes I know that doesn’t rhyme, give me a break!)