(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) I first read Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game decades ago, but I was able to remember a surprising amount of it while watching its straight-to-Netflix adaptation. Thanks to writer/director Mike Flanagan (following up on a series of increasingly successful horror movies), the adaptation is surprisingly faithful, a feat made even more amazing given that the novel is as interior-driven as anything else in King’s biography. After all, how can you portray a woman being chained to a bed and left alone with her husband’s corpse for days? What Flanagan does, aside from the obvious use of flashbacks, is to literalize the heroine’s fantasies and delirious visions: Suddenly, the deceased husband gets up, talks to her and gets her to express her feelings. And then, later, there are other, more tangible horrors: A dog, then something else… And still, throughout, the terrors of being left to die alone. The thirst, the cold, the isolation. Carla Gugino is near a career-best performance in the lead role, being on-screen for almost the entire duration of Gerald’s Game and being asked to carry a wide range of emotions. Bruce Greenwood does get a mention for his not-so-brief time playing a not-so-good husband. The film is so close to the novel that it does share a few issues later on, namely the collision of a good-enough premise with a serial killer story that doesn’t entirely serve the rest of the plot. I was dubious about it when I read the novel so long ago and I’m still dubious about it now. Still, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t add much, so what is left of Gerald’s Game is still remarkable. Flanagan has done much with little (the film has only barely a dozen roles in a largely single location), delivering quality chills and thrills in a compelling package. This is probably his best film yet, and it suggests even better things in the future.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) The first Ouija movie came and went so fast that I never bothered to see it, not encouraged by the terrible reviews it got along the way. So when Ouija: Origin of Evil started getting decent reviews I was intrigued, and it became a must-see when I realized that writer/director Mike Flanagan was behind it: Flanagan’s movies aren’t perfect, but they’re consistently more interesting than the average horror film. This Ouija prequel is no exception: For a while, it’s The Conjuring-level good and while the sequel-dictated conclusion does it no favour, it does manage a few effective scares along the way. The start is very promising, what with its vintage sixties iconography (down to the old-school Universal logo and title card), but especially the introduction of a likable family of a woman and two girls doing what they can to get by despite a dead husband/father. Their spiritism sessions are hokum, but they truly want to help people get better. Elizabeth Reaser is striking at the matriarch, while Lulu Wilson and especially Annalise Basso make impressions as the daughters. Alas, the introduction of a Ouija board soon threatens their lives, as demonic possessions rival with the growing realization that they’re inhabiting a haunted house to take the pep out of their days. Plot-wise, those two elements do conflict, but on a scare-per-scare basis, Ouija: Origin of Evil manages to have good moments. My disappointment with the movie grew bigger as I realized that this wasn’t going to be a comforting horror story reinforcing the family unit, but a demolition derby in which any one of the sympathetic characters would be lucky to make it out alive and sane. (I suspect that much of this conclusion is preordained by the requirements to feed into the previous film.) As I grow older, I have less and less patience with horror movies that run out of characters to kill, and so I find myself unable to like this Ouija follow-up: It’s simply too mean to its characters after such a promising start, and that’s an issue that I share with Flanagan’s Oculus as well. A more optimistic conclusion would have allowed the film to be more accessible to non-horror audiences, but that’s not what we get here. Oh well; at least it’s a competent effort.
(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.