(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) At the risk of spoiling Oculus, I want to talk about the horror movie default narrative. Horror, as a genre, is not one where we can expect the happy ending. Horror does not offer such predictable comforts, but at the same time it has come to formalize the bad ending so thoroughly that it has lost its element of surprise. All things being now equal, the bad ending has little advantage over the happy ending. In fact, the bad ending (in which the threat wins, kills and endures) is far more annoying than the happy one in that it often negates the struggles described by the film—going against an all-powerful evil force, your default assumption is that you’re going to lose. If that’s what happens, then why tell the story? There are fewer ways to annoy an audience than to tell them that their sympathies are for naught, and I fear that this is what happens in Oculus, a feeling more than reinforced by the incredibly sympathetic Karen Gillian in the lead role. Oculus’s central premise is good (an evil mirror that clouds minds and demands sacrifice) but the film’s secret weapon is Gillian: from her first redheaded swinging-ponytail appearance, Gillian makes the most of an interesting character torn between sibling love and all-out thirst for vengeance for the mirror taking away her parents. The way she anticipates the mirror’s defence mechanisms and prepares countermeasures is good for a few good moments, but complications arise when her brother enters the picture. Much of the film is split between current-day efforts to investigate (or destroy) the mirror, with flashbacks showing what happened years before when the two siblings were kids. It’s cleanly shot and nicely edited, but there are a few lulls in the action and the ending is more repellent than I’d like. In retrospect, this marks an important step in writer/director Mike Flanagan’s progression, from the intriguing but fatally low-budget Absentia, to the slick roller-coaster ride of Hush. Oculus is flawed and frustrating, but it’s halfway decent, and I suspect that other people may react much better to the ending.
(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) I am really not a fan of home-invasion thrillers, and even less of horror movies featuring a ridiculously overpowered serial killer. Imagine my reaction upon finding out that Hush, on paper, is nothing more than a gimmicky take on the same old tired idea: A deaf woman fighting against a murderous psychopath in a house lost in the woods. But there’s something to be said about intent. There’s no trying to glorify the killer here, and it’s clear that the heroine is the one we’re cheering for. Even better is the film’s execution: Clocking in at a lean 87 minutes, Hush seldom wastes a moment in milking all possible suspense out of its dramatic premise. The cat-and-mouse game between disabled heroine and psycho killer is well done, and gives the impression of an authentic battle rather than an arbitrary string of showpieces. Much care has been spent in crafting the aural atmosphere of the story, the audio perspective of the film shifting between the deaf woman’s perception and a more objective recording of what’s happening. (If you’re watching at home late at night, though, watch out for the VERY LOUD AND PROLONGED alarm noises that happen twice in the movie.) After Absentia and Oculus, writer/director Mike Flanagan is building a filmography of striking horror movies, and Hush is the best of them so far. Kate Siegel not only turns in a good performance in a pivotal role, but also co-wrote the screenplay with husband Flanagan. Hush is a small triumph of execution, filled with thrilling set pieces and holding it all together until the predictable but satisfying end. When a slasher film can convince even a skeptic like me that it’s worth a look, then it’s a mission accomplished.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) Horror and low-budgets are nearly made for each other, and films like writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Absentia continue to show why horror films made on a shoestring can still be worth a look. As the film begins, we come to understand that our lead protagonist is nearly done grieving after her husband disappeared without a trace seven years earlier. Putting up the last of her remaining “Missing” posters, she’s about to move away, give birth and settle down with her new lover. But there are complications: First, her ex-junkie sister shows up, and then, right after signing the death-by-absentia papers, so does her husband. What’s going on? And what’s the link with the mysterious tunnel not too far away from their home? Absentia doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on spectacle, but what it does put on-screen is worthwhile. This is a quieter horror film that works on suggestion (even the CGI effects tend to be subtle apparitions in shadows), dread, existential horror and the tragedy of denied grief. For jaded horror audiences, it’s a useful reminder that it’s certainly possible to do interesting things with a bit of imagination and skilled execution. While Absentia certainly can’t shake its low-budget credentials (the acting is dull, the cinematography is grainy and the sets are definitely limited), it does a lot with what it has at its disposal. The most annoying element of the film comes at the end, which is about as abrupt and tediously nihilistic as anyone would fear: it solves little and feels like an arbitrary way to end the film. Still, let’s not be overly sour: Absentia works well, and sometimes better than many other bigger-budgeted horror films.