Oculus (2014)


Oculus PosterDirector: Mike Flanagan

Release Date: June 14th, 2014

Genre: Horror

Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaties

Perhaps the most commendable thing about Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is that, for the most part, it refrains from divulging the usual genre conventions. In an era where horror isn’t just for Halloween and franchises reign handily over standalone outings, a scary movie that deviates from the Final Destination school of fright is a welcome sight. It’s a shame that the film’s increasingly choppy narrative slips from the grasp of its director and his co-writer Jeff Howard, but there is a lot to admire here.

We jump between two timelines throughout: in the present day Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Breton Thwaites) return to their childhood home in order to confront and “kill” a spirit emanating from an antiquated mirror. Kaylie believes the mirror is haunted, that it infiltrated their parents’ minds and subsequently caused their deaths — events retold in the other timeline.

Tim isn’t as convinced. At the beginning of the film he is in the process of being discharged from a psychiatric hospital having come to the conclusion that the aforementioned tragedy was non-supernatural. An underlying darkness is already in full flow when we meet the characters; Tim would rather avoid speaking about the past whereas Kaylie is noticeably desperate to face her demons head on. “I know you’ll never understand that part of my life,” she tells her fiancé (who is otherwise surplus to requirements) and you get the sense she has been plotting glass-shattering comeuppance for years.

Actually, it’s more than a sense. In a scintillating ten minute scene, Kaylie meticulously describes and explains the bleak history of the mirror, the just-as-bleak history of her family and how she plans to prove that the artefact is engaged in dark arts. Its function could be construed as lazy storytelling — getting one character to spout exposition rather than conjuring up something more inventive — and it does raise a few outdated genre tropes (smashing mirrors is bad luck, apparently). However, Gillan’s superb form elevates the scene high above its promise. She is determined, her emotion buried beneath a precise exterior. The Scot is arguably the best thing on screen, despite her deep homegrown accent occasionally escaping off the ends of sentences.

Kaylie’s tenacious exterior isn’t instantly appealing, nor is it off-putting, but her doggedness is compelling. She seems pleased when the mirror exhibits an array of unusual reflections, including a sheet-covered mannequin that doesn’t actually exist, and treats the object like a living creature. The film’s immediate mystique owes much to The Newton Brothers’ slightly bulging score too. As the tension mounts it resembles the echo of a pulsating heartbeat. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is steady and likes to linger, particularly during the first half of Oculus.

Alternating between two different timelines is a premise that bears significant intrigue. The television show Lost expertly utilised the flashback technique, and films such as The Usual Suspects and — to a lesser degree — Sinister have successfully dabbled in the method too. For a while it is effective here, bolstering the taut atmosphere as events in the past add more emotional verve to events in the present.

The estate, where most of the film takes place, is put to proficient use as memories fade back into reality with technical dexterity. It is like something out of a modern Guillermo del Toro flick: grand with wooden floorboards that undoubtedly croak at night, and full of mystery and immaculate character. Yet, in a neat contrast, the unsavoury mirror looks out of place, like something more suited to del Toro’s classically-set brand of filmmaking.

We’re left to wonder if there is actually anything going on beyond the horror — does Oculus present a slant on the effects of ill mental health, or the tribulations of a dysfunctional family? Kaylie shouts with joy when she realises she isn’t making it all up, that it’s all spookily true. Tim has been psychologically ‘healed’ so to speak, though we know from the get-go that he has always been sane (this is a horror film after all). The mirror encourages a rift between Kaylie and Tim’s parents by manifesting as an intrusive female stranger. If anything, the piece touches upon these subjects without really investigating them.

Unfortunately, the constant jumping between timelines becomes increasingly frequent, meaning proceedings in both the past and present invariably lose momentum. Sticking primarily in the contemporary space would have been more interesting because the characters’ past is more obvious. Flanagan’s swift editing is technically well executed, but annoyingly misguided. The point is to smartly fill in biographical gaps and for Kaylie and Tim to encounter a growing sense of alienation. We are supposed to feel unsettled, not confused.

The past is awash with a Kubrick-lite aura, as if the writers co-wrote the screenplay with The Shining on in the background. As dad Alan, Rory Cochrane adopts Jack Nicholson’s wavering sanity, while Katee Sackhoff’s Marie takes up Shelley Duvall’s fearful paranoia. A historical bathtub death even finds its way on board, hinting at that disgusting scene with the old woman in Kubrick’s film. Both Cochrane and Sackhoff are creepy enough in their respective roles.

In the end, Oculus doesn’t quite amount to the sum of its parts. But it does break tradition — the protagonists run straight towards evil as opposed to it chasing them — and Karen Gillan is a consistently excellent screen presence. For about an hour this is really enticing, imaginative stuff. A sequel doesn’t sound so scary after all.

Oculus - Gillen & Thwaites

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media

V/H/S/2 (2013)


V/H/S/2 PosterDirectors: Various

Release Date: July 12th, 2013 (US limited) October 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Various

If 2012’s V/H/S failed to capture the adulation of those brave enough to tough it out, then there’s not much hope for this follow up. A film as uninspired as the title shepherding it suggests, V/H/S/2 has five opportunities to succeed yet, more often than not, chooses to beckon forth eternal disappointment through dullness. In fact, only via the purposeful mind of Gareth Evans does this horror outing really imbue a horrifying tingle. Otherwise, a terminal sense of ‘been there done that’ seeps from the screen, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking the segments in this piece are outtakes from the first film. Having been given a measly 20 minutes or so to showcase their talents, each of the seven directors (some segments are co-directed) ought to have vehemently lived by the mantra that denotes a maximisation of their minutes. Somebody inform the postal service because that memo certainly got lost in the mail.

Sewn together by a frame narrative identical both in execution and content to its visual sibling from the first film, V/H/S/2 relays four other slices of spook, apparently. To begin we see Clinical Trials, a ghost story that haunts viewers solely by way of its surprisingly lacklustre content. Next, A Ride in the Park combines the visceral sheen of The Walking Dead and District 9’s moral pickings, though would bite the proverbial hand off for either’s ingenuity. Safe Haven is the film’s saving grace, and there’s absolutely nothing safe nor graceful about Gareth Evans’ co-offering. Finally, extraterrestrials meet pyjamas in Alien Abduction Slumber Party, but this one just ain’t as fun as it should be.

Undoubtedly, the least effective short is actually the one that plays most often. Tape 49, as it is known, is like that annoying bout of buffering that occasionally interrupts whichever film you’re watching on Netflix, increasingly fuelling frustration upon third, fourth and fifth rearing. Directed by Simon Barrett, the Whac-A-Mole invariably shines a light on Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his partner Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), a pair of investigators doing some — wait for it — investigating into the disappearance of a college student. Upon reaching his last know location, a run-down and darkened house, the duo come across a series of televisions emitting static and ushering forth video tape viewing. Implemented as an anchor for the rest of the film, Tape 49 employs the exact same scare (or not) tactics as those seen in V/H/S, rendering the short exhaustingly ineffectual. Already, the remaining segments are at a disadvantage as they first must overcome the lingering cobwebs of Barrett’s effort, before advancing with their own agendas.

Admirably, Safe Haven complies in this regard. Malik (Oka Antara), news crew in tow, enters the residence of an unorthodox Indonesian Cult whose leader, the ‘father’ (Epy Kusnandar), has a severe ethics problem when it comes to the treatment of his followers. Inevitably, events suddenly go awry as the brainwashed group’s true intentions are revealed. Alongside Timo Tjahjanto, director Gareth Evans unleashes a tenacious bloodbath that supersedes every other piece of the V/H/S/2 puzzle. The directorial duo are productive in their utilisation of the found footage concept, generating an uncomfortable air of chaos through the style’s incorporation. Beginning fairly tepidly, you begin to worry that Safe Haven will conform to the generic inequalities of what has come before, but it’s not long before the horror short explodes (literally) into a viscous Jonestown rehash, carrying eerie imagery and brutal immediacy. This is what The Raid would look like if it was a horror movie: violent, relentless and utterly bonkers.

Adam Wingard’s Clinical Trials succeeds in conjuring up ghostly figures, but nothing else. Wingard was the overseer to V/H/S’s version of Tape 49, but his previous experience in the genre does nothing to aid proceedings here. The director also stars in his own segment, as a man who has chosen to take part in a social experiment that sees his sightless eye be replaced by a recording device. Upon returning home post-operation, the man is unceremoniously haunted by a ramshackle bunch of manifestations. Rather than coming across as an efficient stand-alone horror short, Clinical Trials plays more like the opening of Paranormal Activity 6. Though the eye-camera is a neat ploy in avoiding the often impractical continuous use of a handheld camera, there ain’t much to be seen through its lens. Jump-scares don’t frighten, nor do any of the creepily intended figures — conversely, one resembles the twin girls from The Shining, and another is unquestionably the overweight garden zombie from Shaun of the Dead. At one point, a woman shows up requesting a beer. Nope, me neither.

The remaining two slices of horror pie are equally average. Eduardo Sánchez of The Blair Witch Project teams with Gregg Hale and together they offer A Ride in the Park, or, The Walking Dead-lite. After trading dialogue more grotesque in its shallowness than any of the limb crunching about to occur (“You ride that bike more than you ride me”), a cyclist gets bitten by a zombie and subsequently becomes one. There are a couple of noteworthy elements to this piece: the directors’ twist on the found footage point of view, and an intentionally hilarious exchange of glances between a trio of undead — though, this humorous moment does jar with the tone of destitute dread set throughout the entire film. Jason Eisener’s Alien Slumber Party is comparable in delivery to A Ride in the Park, but rather than zombies attacking people, it’s aliens. While the creatures from outer-space do proceed broodingly, the segment is hampered by way of a retreat back to outdated scares through loud trumpeting noises and reddish-green flashing lights.

V/H/S sprung from the horror basements of talented pretenders to Craven, Lynch and Romero’s dark throne, and is a justified piece of cinema in that regard. Despite boasting a similarly talented array of budding directors, V/H/S/2 suffers from an overabundance in sameness. The effort is clearly there and, technically, most segments are delivered with verve. However, only the duo of Evans and Tjahjanto have something substantial to offer. Put simply, it’s not enough.

V/H/S/2 - Safe Haven