Thursday, May 15, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Oculus

At this point, there's no denying that I love Mike Flanagan (See exhibits A, and 2).  However, I was a bit anxious of what he'd do when partnered with a studio and given a budget.  Would the studio stomp on his Flanagan-ness?  Would he go crazy with the money and throw in a bunch of pointless effects?  Would telling an old story again make him just give up and get boring?

Well, he didn't.  Let's get that out of the way.  Oculus the feature is the same as Oculus the short, except it's totally different.  What we get here is a really logical expansion of the original story.  The backstory, which previously had only small hints and references, gets completely fleshed out in a way that makes total sense with the original story and fits in the context of the feature without seeming like a stretch.  All the new characters work and the twists are nice.  I liked just about everything about this movie.  It was just as scary, familiar but fresh and not predictable...just...really well done.

Being based on the original short, Oculus is about an attempt to objectively prove that a demonic mirror named the Lasser Glass is responsible for a string a murder/suicides going back over 100 years finally culminating in the deaths of the parents of the lead character(s).  However, being feature length enables the movie to spend a lot more time with everything and elaborate on the background of its extended cast.  The two biggest changes are the location and the lead character.  In the short it was only Tim Russel, but in the feature the lead character is actually Tim's sister, Kaylie.  Also, instead of the experiment taking place on what is  assumed to be neutral ground (the white room), the mirror is taken back to the Russel's house and placed back on the office wall where it previously hung.

The film itself takes place in the days following Tim's release from the mental hospital he's been undergoing treatment in since the incident with his parents.  Kaylie managed to avoid institutionalization and has been working for an auction house where she's tracked the mirror.  Tim's release happens to coincide with the auction sale of the mirror, and Kaylie seizes the opportunity to experiment on the mirror during the few days it will be allowed away from the auction house before being delivered to the next owner.  She convinces Tim, who is reluctant because of his therapy, to stay with her during the experiment.  They then repeat the setup of the short almost verbatim.

Intercut with the present day experimental footage is flashback footage of the family originally moving into the house and slowly deconstructing due to the mirror's influence.  What's interesting is that the present day sequences have much more of a subtle, vaguely uncomfortable, supernatural feel like Flanagan's previous work, while the flashbacks have a more visceral feel with gore and disgusting things.  The balance is great, especially because the creepier and more character driven present day scenes provide a great contrast for the bloody dementedness that eventually happens and makes that have a real impact.  I actually need to buy this on Blu-Ray when it comes out if for no other reason than there are bits I straight up did not see because it was so uncomfortable I had to look away.  Loved Ones, Asylum Blackout, and Martyrs all couldn't pull that off. 

Katee Sackhoff does an excellent turn as mother Marie Russel, though I would've liked to see her turn to a paranoid jealous wife a bit slower.  Rory Cochrane as Alan unfortunately never seems to sell the caring father portion either, his delivery through most of the movie is fairly deadpan.  Brenton Thwaites was a pleasant surprise as Tim.  Guy is so damned pretty I wasn't sure how well he'd be able to pull off a horror movie and emotional sibling drama but he actually did really well.  Karen Gillan performed admirably well as Kaylie.  Unfortunately, I feel like neither sibling really shined and the present day scenes really felt less interesting somehow than what was going on in the past, until the end.  They were good and they carried it well, but their scenes didn't pull me in as much as the scenes with their child actor counterparts.  I don't know if it was just Flanagan really getting into the opportunity to flesh out the world of Oculus or if the kids were just really good, but those scenes were really enjoyable.

The effects they use on the mirror ghosts as well are particularly nice and something I don't think I've seen much before.  Very creepy touch.  And I thought the direction at the end was just really compelling and totally sucked me in.  In fact, the only thing I think I was disappointed in was the big line in the original short ("I've met my demons and they are many, I've seen the Devil and he is me.") wasn't nearly as scary in the way it was delivered here.  That, and the lack of the gorgeously deranged "Finger LICKIN' GOOD!!!" line from the answering machine in the original.

To a minor spoiler:  I still dislike how quickly the experiment fell apart.  In the original it made sense despite being ultimately disappointing.  Being alone in a room with an evil demonic looking glass can be a somewhat taxing experience.  It kindof makes sense that Tim would fall asleep.  But in the feature no one falls asleep.  They just watch video of weird things, hallucinate, and then watch plants die without doing much of anything about it.  And finally, in the feature the glass suffers minor damage due to Tim shooting his insane father in front of the mirror and the glass cracking a piece off when Alan's body hits it.  The glass normally deflects attempts made to harm it fairly dramatically but it couldn't do anything about the body hitting it.  In the finale of the movie Tim activates the dead man's switch, not realizing Kaylie was standing in the way due to the mirror making him see things.  This causes a boat anchor to swing from the ceiling and hit Kaylie, killing her and smashing her into the mirror.  Given the force of a swinging boat anchor, especially one with additional weight on it, how did this not break the mirror further?  Kaylie demonstrates the pointy anchor going almost all the way into the wall behind the mirror.  It's not a light touch.  I would've loved to have seen the mirror effectively suicide itself.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Horror Off-Season: The Quiet Ones

The Quiet Ones is a new horror release from the resurrected Hammer Film studio.  It's director John Pogue's 2nd feature as director.  John also served as a writer on the 2nd draft of the script, originally by Tom de Ville (who served as writer on episodes of Urban Gothic and Lexx), alongside Craig Rosenburg (The Uninvited) and Oren Moverman (Rampart).  It is sometimes worrying when a script has this many hands involved.  A single writer or a pair with solid history seem more likely to produce a horror film with common vision, while multiple writers tend to work by committee which results in a film that ultimately relies more heavily on well-worn tropes in order to keep everyone in agreement.  At least in my experience.

Set sometime in the early 1970s the story is told through an interesting combination of Found Footage-style and traditional omniscient camera.  It centers around an Oxford professor played by Jared Harris, 2 student researchers, and a student cameraman recruited through his class on the paranormal.  Dr. Coupland believes there is no supernatural and the paranormal is just science we've yet to understand.  He believes there is no such thing has haunting or possession and that these are just deep psychological conditions that can be cured through extreme therapy. Initially describing a failed attempt to cure a young child referred to as "David Q.", he then tells the class about his current experiments on a young amnesiac foster child named Jane Harper (Olvia Cooke), who claims to be possessed by an entity she calls "Evey"

In some strange combination of The Philip Experiment and Psychoplasmics from The Brood he hopes to deprive Jane of sleep and subject her to hypnotism sessions and isolation in order to expose Evey as some sort of secondary personality or hallucination and allow Jane to confront and get rid of her.  After being evicted from their original location near the university and having the experiment's funding cut by Oxford, Coupland takes his students and Jane to a house in the country where they'll be able to continue their work.  This is where the bulk of the action takes place.

I do want to go over the end and some, but that will be a spoiler tag so I'll just give my impressions.

This movie is pretty good.  I'm not as impressed by it as I was other Hammer Revival flicks like Woman in Black, but I consider this solid and I'm glad that Hammer is back.  That said, I have some criticism:  Despite having a cast of only 5 characters, there are some who are so poorly developed I feel like the movie could have done completely without them.  The non-camera students, Harry and Krissi, seem incredibly superfluous.  They deliver lines, yeah, and things happen to them, but I don't think a single thing they do is integral to the main plot.  They reveal no information and only seem to serve a b-plot that contributes nothing to the main one.  Also Coupland's character is just confusing.  We get some reveals during the ending sprint that do help to explain some of his motivations, but there's a lot he does that makes no sense.  And his continued insistence on following the preordained path of the experiment despite mounting evidence of occult involvement makes him a crappy scientist.  And I know it's petty, but the bit of dialog where they name-drop the title of the movie makes about as much sense as nipples on a duck.

I feel like the movie could've also added some psychological weight to its action to up the creep factor, and favor slow-burn lead ins more.  In the hypnotism/seance scenes, it would've been incredibly unnerving to have long, slow shots of unbroken dialog with creepy shadows and unexplained noises instead of short lead-ins to jump scares.  A final weird point is the use of a train-chugging sound effect.  It had a few points where it was effective at tension-building, but it wasn't related to just happened to be a tense and driving sound effect.

I know it sounds like a lot but everything I just talked about I felt would have made the movie better, not were needed to make it good.  It doesn't do anything egregiously wrong in my book and does a fair amount right, it just missed some opportunities to do some things really right.

That out of the way, on to the ending:

I feel like I "got" the majority of the ending, but there are a few sticking bits.  The way I took the story of the movie, as revealed by the final act, was that it's not really the Philip Experiment at all despite the face-value similarity and that lots of other reviewers mention it.  The key to the Philip Experiment is that the spirit they conjured through seances didn't exist at all, he was a complete fabrication.  However, in The Quiet Ones, the experimenters don't invent Evey, they basically prod Jane until she invents Evey.  Also, there is evidence that Brian finds of Evey actually existing when he researches the occult symbol that burns into Jane meaning that unless the power of belief retcons the spirit into existing, Evey can't be a fabrication.  After the final act reveal I think it's very clear that what actually happens is that Evey Dwyer was a real little girl who is in some way a conduit for a cult's deity/demon.  This is a bit of theory, but I think the original attempt to manifest the demon fails due to some part of Evey that was not willing to be sacrificed.  This persona becomes Jane, the amnesiac.  However, the experimenters torture and break down Jane until she loses the strength to control Evey and Evey re-asserts by re-branding Jane.

When the experimenters move out to the country and Jane reveals the name Evey, she's gathered 4 other people in a single house who believe in Evey and want her to become manifest.  She's effectively recreated the original cult, this is further evidenced by the cult mark being burned into all the experimenters during the final act.  Then Dr. Coupland kills Jane, and Brian resurrects her causing Evey to be fully reborn.  Evey, rid of Jane's persona, self-immolates which gives birth to the demon.

What I don't fully understand is why the demon/fire deity now requires possess of Brian at the very end of the movie to begin the Apocalypse.  If the demon simply needs a body, why not use Jane/Evey's?  Maybe it needs to destroy the original body to be manifested but then needs another body to work?  That just seems counterproductive.  Frankly, I feel like the whole thing is derailed by the stinger at the end that shows Brian being interrogated for the murder of Jane and the rest.  If that wasn't there the movie would've ended with the demon breaking out of J'Evey at the camera, presumably to kill Brian and wreak its havoc.  So maybe one of the several writers felt like they needed the stinger, and wanted to have the cool similarity of using the clap gesture Brian used as the camera man to begin the movie to call the end of the movie, but then never answered the questions it raised?