Film Review: Clown

© Cross Creek Pictures

Kent (Andy Powers), a real estate agent, has a happy family life with his wife Meg (Laura Allen) and young son, Jack. Jack’s birthday party is already underway when the clown they hired calls and cancels at the last minute. What does Kent do? He digs up an old clown costume from one of his properties and jumps in to save the day. The next morning, he discovers that the suit, nose and wig have fused themselves to his skin. But that’s not all – he soon starts exhibiting violent tendencies and cravings for the flesh of human children.

Clown is the surprising feature debut of TV-movie director Jon Watts and his frequent cowriter Christopher D. Ford. I have to hand it to them for giving us something we haven’t seen before. Killer clowns themselves are nothing new, but they often appear in films of a farcical (see Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Stitches) or surrealist (see It) nature. The film strikes a serious tone and isn’t played for laughs per se, although those viewers with pitch-black sensibilities may find a few things to smirk at. Overall, it’s not as ridiculous as the promotional material or plot summaries would suggest.

Speaking of promotional material, you may have seen the posters or trailers for the film, proudly presenting it as a creation of “The Master of Horror Eli Roth”. I don’t know when this became a thing people started saying, but I can remember a time when Roth’s own film, Hostel, was billed as “Quentin Tarantino Presents”, so maybe this is just part of the circle (one might say downward spiral) of life. Roth’s involvement is, actually, a bit of a funny story. Back in 2010, Watts and Ford posted a fake trailer for a prototypical Clown on YouTube, presenting it as an admittedly plausible production of Roth’s. Well, the master himself stumbled upon the clip and admired the duo’s chutzpah so much that he agreed to produce the real thing. He even gave a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Now, I have to admire the guy for lending his name and support to genre newcomers (see the Soskas), but let’s give credit where it’s due by remembering whose movie this is.

© Cross Creek Pictures

Watts and Ford take their interesting clown-metamorphosis idea and end up with a film that is far better than I expected it to be. Roth compares it to The Fly, but I wouldn’t go that far. The first act is fast-paced, loaded with satisfying plot points and characters who behave somewhat reasonably. The gradual transformation continues as we are exposed to the invented Nordic folklore of the “Clöyne”, complete with fake medieval illustrations – fitting, for two filmmakers who have no qualms about manufacturing their own reality. The story gets a boost from Karlsson (Peter Stormare), an expert in the mythology of this particular clown suit. Indeed, I half expected Clown to fizzle out after a busy 45 minutes and devolve into cheap sight gags, as is the case with many other carny slashers.  Not so; the movie fills its runtime with plenty of unfortunate events and some striking visuals. If anything, I could accuse it of being a bit busy.

The script and actors deftly handle the potentially explosive subject of child murder that is so indispensable to the story. These scenes are always staged and shown carefully, if not quite sensitively. Laura Allen impresses as she tests the lengths to which she will go to save her child, revealing an unexpected depth in her character. Unfortunately, she makes some of the supporting cast look even weaker by comparison.

© Cross Creek Pictures

This is the point in the review where I will admit to not really “getting” scary clowns. While I understand that the irony of fearing something that’s intended to bring joy could be widely appealing, that doesn’t quite explain the ubiquity of murderous clowns in popular culture, nor the glut of coulrophobic films since It. One can’t help but think clowns are terrible at their only job; a study from the University of Sheffield claimed that clowns were “universally disliked by children”, who find them “frightening and unknowable”. Perhaps too many people have bad memories from early childhood of painted people ruining perfectly good birthday parties or trips to McDonald’s? Adults may find the aesthetics or behaviour of clowns unsettling, but then the same could be said of other figures from children’s entertainment. Why do clowns, in particular, deserve to be the objects of such repulsion? I think this is partly a case of art imitating life imitating art… The eponymous villain will recall, of course, real-life serial killer and clown John Wayne Gacy, the two sides of his identity having grown inseparable in the public’s mind, not that I can blame them.

All in all, it’s not the kind of subgenre I tend to go for, but the film is pleasantly surprising and, really, could have been far worse. It’s also fairly light on gore, at least by contemporary standards, if that is a consideration for you. Clown premiered in Italy during November 2014 before making its way to the 2015 Glasgow FrightFest last weekend. It was released on DVD in the UK on the 2nd of March. It is set to open in Japan later this month, but so far no North American release has been announced.

Next time, just go to a costume shop.

Iota

West End Thrills: Ghost Stories

Lest you think me narrow minded for relying solely on films to get my horror kicks, I thought I would share with you a recent theatre-going experience I had in London’s West End. I’m not talking about Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black, which I’ve also seen and whose perennial popularity I can confirm is entirely deserved. No, I’m talking about a smaller, more recent original production on at The Arts Theatre until the get-your-keister-to Leicester-Square-before-it’s-gone 15th of March: Ghost Stories.

Ghost Stories was written by Jeremy Dyson, a co-creator of BBC’s The League of Gentlemen who went on to adapt Roald Dahl’s Twisted Tales for the West End, and Andy Nyman, an actor and magician with roles in Severance and Death at a Funeral. It premiered in February 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse, and has since terrified audiences in London and even (briefly) in Toronto. There have been whispers about the play extending its reach to the USA this year.

If you’ve heard anything at all about Ghost Stories, you’ve heard the gimmicky, almost William Castle-esque taglines: “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending”. The play also takes a couple of leaves out of Hitchcock’s book by forbidding (re)admittance to the theatre after curtain time and imploring patrons after curtain call to “Please, keep the secrets of Ghost Stories”. I will honour this request by attempting to reveal as little as possible about the play while still communicating why I think you should go see it.

Walking into the theatre, you feel the hum of nervous anticipation emanating from your fellow patrons. The unnerving cocktail of ambient sounds – water droplets, echoes, rumblings – cuts through banal chitchat. The theatre is “decorated” with black bin bags and yellow caution tape, which suggests that the performance to follow will be similarly frugal and minimalist. Never fear (at least, not about that); the story starts off slowly before revealing its technically impressive, expressionist set pieces, all superbly lit to maximise tension. The sound crackles, whistles, booms and screeches. Packed into tight seats, you feel trapped in an immersive environment of dread. Even your sense of smell is eventually turned against you.

Overall, Ghost Stories can best be described as an experience: a ride, almost. The quality of the acting and direction surpasses the admittedly thin script. None of the three stories is particularly groundbreaking and each relies on ready-made archetypes (and the fantastic atmosphere mentioned above) to create suspense quickly. This means you probably won’t spend the next few days thinking about the stories, and you definitely won’t be saving them for your next campfire.  Genre fans, in particular, may find this disappointing. That’s not to say that the script is flawed, merely that narrative novelty is not its raison d’être. The surprise ending I’ve been asked to protect is, well, surprising, but it’s not what you will remember about Ghost Stories. You’ll remember the sense of intimacy created both on stage and within the stalls and circle, thanks to the care and attention to detail that go into one sumptuous, satisfying, 80-minute feast.

“Thank you and sleep well.”

Iota

Film Review: The Pact II

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The Pact II is this year’s sequel to Nicholas McCarthy’s well-received 2012 feature debut.  This time, the franchise’s fate has been entrusted to writers/directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath, who previously brought us the 2009 zombie film Die-ner (get it?) – not that anyone noticed. It’s safe to say they were still cutting their teeth on The Pact II. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but it is just barely watchable.

The first Pact film sees a solely female family tormented, thrown about, and abducted by a supernatural presence in their recently deceased mother’s home. Or so it seemed. The sequel picks up a few weeks after the first film’s conclusion. If you haven’t seen the original, the sequel will make very little sense to you. And even if you have, you may still find yourself scratching your head. Crime scene clean-up specialist June is the latest play thing for a Judas killer who returns in spectral form, although it’s unclear for what purpose. He’s pretty good at casting shadows, manipulating doors, and creeping up behind people, but that’s about it. And why does he bother? There’s an attempt at an explanation during the twisting climax – which, I will admit, did involve some moments of tension – but the twist itself is not only forced but utterly pointless.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

This snooze-fest of a film gets a slight energy boost from the performance of the always sharp and charismatic Patrick Fischler, who plays FBI Agent Ballard. His poorly written character is full of unresolved contradictions and forced to perform hackneyed dialogue, but Fischler somehow manages, all while bringing an oddly sinister sex appeal to the role that just works. We also see the return of Caity Lotz as Annie: a wise move, and I can’t imagine how they would have lifted the saggy second act without her. Of course, the decision was also a double edged sword, since having Annie around only highlights how weak the sequel’s heroine is in comparison.

© Preferred Film and TV

© Preferred Film and TV

The main downfall of The Pact II is that it shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what made the original film interesting. The first Pact is calm and quiet and deliberate, taking its time with careful pacing and buzzing sound design. It has a mystery worth solving, and we’re happy to wait patiently, only to be suddenly jolted into understanding. The Pact II throws all of this out the window with its clumsy cinematography and uneven tone. Flawed presentation aside, the film doesn’t even add anything worthwhile to the Barlow family narrative. Worse still, it’s bo-ring. If you loved the first one, you may feel compelled to seek out the sequel in order revisit old characters and settings, but you will almost certainly be disappointed by this well-meaning, bumbling imposter.

© Preferred Film and TV Really? How much longer?

© Preferred Film and TV
“Really? How much longer?”

Also, can I just point out that there is nothing about a pact mentioned in either film. Oh, how I long to turn the cultural clocks back to a simpler time when horror titles said what they meant and meant what they said – and weren’t afraid to say it in three, four, even five words, if necessary!

Best wishes, and don’t forget to look behind you,

Iota

The Best of FrightFest: London 2014

© 2014 Film4

I’m taking a brief detour from my top-5 countdown of horror to report on my most recent genre event, and it was a biggie. I’ve just had the immense pleasure of sitting in a cinema, along with hundreds of other fans, for five straight days, watching the premieres of dozens of brand new horror films from around the world. I’m talking, of course, about the 2014 Film4 FrightFest hosted by the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square, London. After catching the two-day festival earlier this year in Glasgow, I knew I had to make it to the massive August event. The main festival is spread out across three screens, with two additional discovery screens so that viewers can (attempt to) tailor their festival experience to their unique tastes. All told, 64 feature films were shown, of which I was able to see 25. Out of those, these are my top ten films to look out for this year

10. The Samurai (Der Samurai)
Writer/Director: Till Kleinert. Germany 2014.

© 2014 Tribeca Film

A very welcome entry into the disappointingly sparse contemporary German horror canon, The Samurai is a dark, bizarre, and captivating homoerotic fantasy-adventure. A German village is turned upside-down and sliced open when a brooding and volatile stranger comes to town, armed with a samurai sword and utter disdain for the locals’ small-minded categorisations of sex, gender, and species. Jakob is a straight-laced rookie cop who becomes entangled in the samurai’s twisted fairy tale of transformation and transcendence, and is ultimately forced to face the wolf within. The film draws from a different spirit of storytelling that’s definitely not for everyone, but that’s ultimately The Samurai’s strength. It’s really something special.

9. Late Phases
Director: Adrian Garcia Bogliano. Writer: Eric Stolze. USA 2014.

© 2014 Dark Sky Films

Another great film with lupine symbolism, Late Phases stars curmudgeonly, blind veteran Ambrose who moves into a suffocatingly bland retirement community. Some of his new neighbours come to welcome him to the community, among them an unfriendly eight-foot-tall werewolf. Surviving the first attack, Ambrose has one month to get in peak shape and prepare for the next full moon, all while finding time to unravel the mystery of his claustrophobic community and scare his neighbours by using a shovel instead of a walking stick, because that’s just the kind of guy he is. Late Phases is a unique and mature film with an endearingly cranky and unconventional hero audiences will love to root for.

8. Coherence
Writer/Director: James Ward Byrkit. USA 2013.

© 2013 Bellanova Films

© 2013 Bellanova Films

If you’ve ever worried about the exponential and infinite proliferation of alternate realities, Coherence is the film for you. Shot and lit in a style that’s both warm and intimate, it documents an awkward dinner party of sort-of friends that takes place as a comet passes by overhead. Suddenly, all of the houses on the street lose power… except one. And then it’s déjà vu all over again. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that Coherence is an unsettling and mysterious ride through quantum physics that gives full weight to all of the dark and terrifying philosophical problems that come along with it.

7. The Harvest
Director: John McNaughton. Writer: Stephen Lancellotti. USA 2013.

© 2013 Elephant Eye Films

A nostalgic thrill ride that will remind you of the adventures of childhood, The Harvest is a fairy tale with modern concerns and timeless themes. A newly orphaned little girl moves in with her grandparents and explores the new neighbourhood, where she meets a lonely, bedridden little boy guarded by his fire-breathing dragon of a mother. While trying to keep their friendship alive, she discovers the dark secret of why he’s never allowed out of his room, and must fight to make things right. An unlikely and imperfect fable, The Harvest is eerie and irresistibly charming, and probably the only film from the festival that you could safely watch with your mum.

6. Starry Eyes
Writers/Directors: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. USA 2014.

© 2014 Snowfort Pictures

Starry Eyes is a neon parable of Hollywood glory and the sacrifices one young woman is willing to make to see her name in lights. Sarah works in fast food and lives with a half-dozen other aspiring film-types in LA. She thinks she’s found her big break when she gets a callback after a particularly invasive audition. Soon the producer makes some uncomfortable requests of her, and she must decide how far she is willing to go to achieve her Hollywood dream. Sarah knew it wasn’t going to be easy to make it in show business, but she never thought it would involve so much blood. And… maggots. Starry Eyes is a twisted and uncomfortable, if slightly heavy-handed, film that’s all about character development and the seedy, soul-sucking power of Tinseltown.

5. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (Død Snø 2)
Writer/Director: Tommy Wirkola. Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel. Norway 2014.

© 2014 Tappeluft Pictures

This is one of the rare sequels that surpasses the original. It feels like a natural follow-up made by people who loved the original and knew how to take its absurd humour to the next level. The story continues exactly where it left off in 2009, with our sinister Nazi zombies ruthlessly invading the world’s happiest country. The sleepy little Norwegian villages never saw it coming! But the movie doesn’t just rehash the original; it adds a mission, a hilarious police force, a loveable trio of American nerds who call themselves the Zombie Squad and – get this – Soviet Russian zombies. If you like pitch-black, no-holds-barred, goofy humour, then you need to see Dead Snow 2.

4. The Babadook
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent. Australia 2014.

© 2014 Causeway Films

Something dire must be going on Down Under, because there’s been a growing and impressive output of Aussie horror in recent years. The Babadook is just one example, and it’s a damn scary one. Widow and single mum Amelia struggles to love and understand her very difficult 6 year-old son. He is convinced that the monster from the disturbing children’s book The Babadook is real, and is determined not to “let him in”. But Amelia feels she’s slipping now more than ever, and the audience can feel the darkness creeping in and taking hold of her. The Babadook is eerie and gorgeous and was a universal hit at the festival. It’s about more than just monsters. It’s about the fear of parenthood, of losing loved ones and of losing one’s sense of self.

3. The Guest
Director: Adam Wingard. Writer: Simon Barrett . USA 2014.

© HanWay Films

The Guest should be coming to a cinema near you very soon, and it does not disappoint. It’s the sharp and stunning new brainchild of the makers of You’re Next. The Peterson family has just lost a son in combat when an army buddy of his arrives at their doorstep. He charms the family with his good manners and military competence, but soon it becomes clear that the intentions behind his visit are more than just loyal and dutiful, and that he has a secret lurking beneath his steely stare. This is the kind of fun, charismatic action movie that you don’t see much anymore, with fantastic performances, visual style, and loads of wit that elevate and update it to the level of contemporary masterpiece.

2. Honeymoon
Director: Leigh Janiak. Writers: Phil Graziadei and Leigh Janiak. USA 2014.

© 2014 Fewlas Entertainment

Honeymoon is a movie that’s not afraid to keep an audience guessing to the point of excruciating discomfort, because that’s what makes the final release that much more haunting. The story follows an obnoxiously adorable pair of newlyweds on their cabin-in-the-woods honeymoon. But the clichés stop there. The intimate camerawork and careful pacing transform the typical slasher set-up into something new and unrecognisable. Something comes between the couple and starts to eat away at their relationship from the inside, but what is it? Distrust and desperation pull the newlyweds apart in ways more harmful and insidious than a masked man with an axe ever could. Don’t watch the trailer, just watch Honeymoon. And then have a good cry.

1. Housebound
Writer/Director: Gerard Johnstone. New Zealand 2014.

© 2014 Semi-Professional

Now that you’re emotionally scarred from watching Honeymoon, you can lift your spirits with Housebound, my favourite film of the festival. This fun Kiwi gothic is the perfect marriage of spooky tension and comic relief, with razor-sharp wit and wacky plot twists. Rebellious recovering addict Kylie lands herself in some legal trouble and is placed under house arrest and the supervision of her well-meaning but overbearing mother who’s convinced the house is haunted. At first Kylie laughs at her mother’s superstition, but strange occurrences soon change her mind. Or is something else going on in the house? Housebound’s biggest strength is an excellent script chockfull of goofy moments and legitimate scares that any horror fan will appreciate, anchored by the brilliant chemistry between the two female leads.

And those were my favourite films from the 2014 FrightFest in London. If you think there are any conspicuous absences, it might just be because I didn’t get the chance to see them. You can check out the full list of films on the FrightFest website. If you’re located in the UK and want to taste-test the festival atmosphere, keep an eye out for the October event with a half-dozen or so films, details to follow. As always, I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions, so please keep them coming!

Yours frightfully,

Iota

Film Review: Ginger Snaps

Hello horror fans, I think it’s time we got to know each other a little better. This is why I’ve decided to talk about one of my favourite horror movies of all time: Ginger Snaps, directed by John Fawcett, written by Karen Walton and starring Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins.

PDVD_000

Ginger Snaps (2000) is the first of three films, followed by Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) and Ginger Snaps Back (also 2004). The trilogy, with its edgy wit and sarcastic bite, marks a milestone in Canadian horror cinema. The first film in particular captures the zeitgeist of ironic late-nineties youth culture perfectly, with “likes” and “whatevers” galore. It’s a film that understands young women and portrays them as complete characters while giving their issues top billing. As if that weren’t enough, it’s a near-perfect genre film that understands its place within the horror canon and deftly applies horror themes and aesthetics to its unique subject matter. You can call it a werewolf movie about puberty, or a coming-of-age film about werewolves, but to do so would be to glaze over the myriad intersections of this deceptively simple fusion film. The result reveals new insights into the parallel processes of adolescence and lycanthropy.

325200-ginger_snaps_09-450x257

Ginger and Brigitte are two nihilistic teen sisters with an unhealthily close relationship, united in their hatred of their parents, their school, and their suburban lifestyle. Their mantra is “out at sixteen or dead in the scene, but together forever”. Both girls hide beneath baggy, dark clothing and scornful sneers. They fear adulthood, more specifically womanhood, and its accompanying loss of identity, and fantasise about ensuring their individuality through death rather than growth. I think many girls and women can relate to the feeling of being pummeled with Gender from the onset of puberty. It’s a time of physical change and emotional shame, when “woman” still feels like a dirty word. Then comes the fateful night when Bridget gets her first period and is brutally attacked by a ferocious werewolf in the woods. It’s hard to tell which is more upsetting to her. The pubertal changes that follow, such as bleeding, cramps, hair growth, increased sexual appetite, etc., become practically indistinguishable from other, more lupine developments.

GingerSnaps_shot1a

Menstruation and horror are an oft-neglected match made in heaven, most likely due to the taboo (originally a Polynesian term for “unclean” women on the rag) surrounding menses. Women will even refer to awkward period moments as “horror stories”. TMI, amirite? Various beliefs found in cultures the world over proclaim menstruating women to be possessed by powerful sexual and reproductive forces, and require that they remain in isolation during this time, for the safety of others. The source of confusion is obvious; bleeding is nearly always a sign of danger… except when it happens to women every month. It’s also easy to see how declaring someone unclean for her natural biological processes serves as a form of moral subordination, even as it grants her a kind of spiritual power. Such depictions of women, like that of the wicked witch, are as old as dirt. The most obvious example of menstruation in another horror film would be Carrie (1973), in which the title character’s menarche is a traumatic moment that provokes a dark power that she has possessed since birth. This only foreshadows the even bloodier and more humiliating incident where she is doused in blood at her prom. We all know what happens next. The difference between Carrie and Ginger is that Carrie has always had telekinetic powers and the “curse of blood” is just part of the pattern of shame and oppression that culminates in utter destruction at the prom. This is a firm connection, but in Ginger’s case the relationship is explicitly causal, so much so that there is often ambiguity between the biological horrors of her female curse and the bestial horrors of her wolf curse.

ginger-snaps-werewolf1

The link between menstruation and the lunar cycle is not a huge stretch. In fact, the word “menses” comes through Latin and Greek variations of “moon”. There is even some evidence to suggest that women’s menstrual cycles correspond to the lunar cycle in cultures without artificial lighting at night. With all of that in mind, it’s almost hard to believe no one thought of making a werewolf-menstruation film before Ginger Snaps. Perhaps it’s the typical association Hollywood makes between wolves and hyper-masculinity. But we soon learn that in Ginger’s case, it’s best to “forget the Hollywood rules”. Indeed, Ginger Snaps plays counter to expectations by virtually ignoring the cyclical werewolf in favour of adopting a linear transformation similar to puberty. This more closely corresponds to Ginger and Brigitte’s real fears: the gradual and permanent transformation and loss of identity that they would rather die than endure. This is why the film changes the usual rules, and it is this well-considered twist that makes Ginger Snaps a standout genre entry, one that knows the rules but doesn’t have to obey them, just like its rebellious teen protagonists. None of that silver bullet nonsense here; these are postmodern werewolves we’re dealing with.

5351881_std

You could easily go on forever about this movie and how it comments on gender, puberty, werewolves, teen (and female) sexuality, bestiality, genre, teen angst, sisterhood, and even Anglo-Canadian identity and postcolonialism. In fact, I’ve included a list of articles written by scholars who do go on forever about all of these things and more. That alone should help illustrate just how great a cult following this movie has. Its depth and complexity are hidden under a dark, furry coat of entertainment value.

Not only is it clever; it’s also very funny, and for a movie about werewolves and puberty, it can even be pretty subtle. Watch for a crane zoom into the dark entrance of a blood-splattered dog house in the opening scene. Sure, you don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out, but you do have to know what to look for. In another scene, Brigitte finally finds the coveted potential cure, monkshood, at home after her housewife mother bought it at a craft store. The cure to the curse can be bought at a craft store and then cooked by a teenage pot dealer and injected like heroin. That’s more ironic, self-deprecating humour than I know what to do with, and I’m Canadian.

220px-Thegingersnapsfilmposter

So that’s Ginger Snaps, and it’s one of my favourites. And if you like your werewolves mixed with equal parts Angela Carter and Heathers (1988), then it might just be one of your favourites as well.

And don’t forget to check out my old blog, Terrifying Treats, for a very different response to Ginger Snaps.

 

United against life as we know it,

Iota

 

Further Reading

Barker, Martin, Ernest Mathijs, and Xavier Mendik. “Menstrual Monsters: The Reception of the Ginger Snaps Cult Horror Franchise.” Film International 21 (2005): 68-83. Web.

Briefel, Aviva. “Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film.” Film Quarterly 58.3 (2005): 16-27. Web.

Mathijs, Ernest. John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013. Print. <http://www.utppublishing.com/John-Fawcett-s-Ginger-Snaps.html&gt;

Miller, April. “‘The Hair That Wasn’t There Before’: Demystifying Monstrosity and Menstruation in Ginger Snaps and Ginger Snaps Unleashed.” Western Folklore 64.3&4 (2006): 281-303. Web.

Poulin, Brock. “Reading against the Gore: Subversive Impulses in the Canadian Horror Film.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 1 (2005): n. pag. Web.

Rothenburger, Sunnie. “‘Welcome to Civilization”: Colonialism, the Gothic, and Canada’s Self-protective Irony in the Ginger Snaps Werewolf Trilogy.” Journal of Canadian Studies 44.3 (2010): 96-204. Web.

Film Review: Oculus

Mike Flanagan just might be the newest name on my list of favourite people. His movies are imaginative in their approach to supernatural phenomena that exist on the periphery of our everyday world. In this way, his carefully crafted scares absorb even the most skeptical viewer. What I like about him is that he leaves room for mystery. Was it real or was it all imagined? We’re free to decide for ourselves, but if we’ve done our job and suspended our disbelief, the answer will be obvious.

Image

Oculus (2013) is Flanagan’s second feature following the festival hit Absentia (2011).  Absentia takes a premise that would be fairly bland or even laughable under different circumstances, but Flanagan keeps the mystery going and imbues it with emotional depth and complex interpersonal relationships that give the film an almost spiritual resonance. Oculus does something similar. It takes its core premise from his 2006 short film “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan”, and then builds a world with new, fleshed-out characters around the same basic concept. Essentially, it’s about a killer mirror, which could have been ridiculous had the writing been lazier. Lucky for us, that’s not the case. I recommend the short to anyone who has seen Oculus, for a great example of an effective, minimalist short film, but also a revealing look at how stories like this one are written, from a seed of an idea to a feature-length film.

Oculus begins as a young woman (the captivating Karen Gillan) takes in her brother (Brenton Thwaites) who has just been rehabilitated and released from juvenile detention after allegedly killing their father (Rory Cochrane) some ten years prior. He considers himself justified but guilty, while she thinks the whole tragic series of events was due to the malevolent influence of the antique mirror that hung in their father’s study. Gillan has had plenty of time to research the mirror, and implicates it in dozens of cases of unusual and often self-inflicted deaths. I won’t spoil it by listing them here, but they’re the kind of brilliant two-line stories you might hear around a campfire, the ones that haunt you for weeks. She creates an elaborate and supposedly foolproof plan to catch the mirror’s evil on camera, thereby proving her family’s innocence, before destroying it forever. As she executes her plan, under the constant skepticism of her brother, the narrative is interspersed with childhood flashbacks that illuminate the mechanisms the mirror uses to drive its owners insane. It controls people by manipulating perception, by creating powerful sensory illusions in the minds of anyone within the mirror’s zone of influence. How do you destroy something that knows your every thought and feeling and can manipulate all five of your senses at any time? I’m often frustrated by the kinds of films that are acclaimed for “blurring the line between the imaginary and reality”, because those tend to be the kinds of films that indulge in spectacle at the expense of logic and coherent writing. While watching Oculus, there were times I had no bloody clue what was real and what was imaginary, but I knew I was in the capable hands of a well-crafted story, and the experience was incredibly satisfying.

Image

I think Oculus has a lot in common with the film 1408. Both movies have a slightly hokey premise (haunted mirror vs. haunted hotel room); a skeptical character as well as a believer; exposition scenes describing dozens of mysterious, self-inflicted deaths; a malevolent force that manipulates humans by altering their perception; and an epic, high-stakes battle for the human soul. I liked 1408, because hotel rooms are inherently a bit creepy, but I prefer the concept of the mirror and love the way it was integrated into the overall aesthetic of Oculus.

The film is expertly crafted and permeates with metaphors of reflection. The narrative corkscrews its way through flashbacks that reflect and intensify the contemporary storyline until, finally, past and present become one and the same. The elegant camerawork creates the illusion that something is lurking just beyond the frame, something we long to glimpse at the edge of every panning shot. The sound design makes heavy use of echoes, which are not only creepy, but also the auditory equivalent of reflections. There is also a great deal of symmetry (a.k.a. mirror images) in the set design, most notably in Gillan’s curiously deliberate set-up of monitors and cameras to catch the evil mirror in the act.

Speaking of cameras, technology is assumed to produce more reliable representations of reality than mirrors, when in fact all that either can do is capture light and present an indirect image of an unknowable reality. Photography, too, is eventually shown to be fallible. The human eye essentially does the same thing. None of us can fully trust the story told to us by our five senses, but it’s all we have to go on. And isn’t that terrifying? The difference here is that a tangible entity, a mirror, is to blame for the brother and sister’s deception, and that they are in immediate, mortal danger.

Image

At the best of times, mirrors are powerful and dangerous things. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan identified a process of identity formation in infants that he called “the mirror stage”. The infant is uncoordinated and feels that the different parts of her body are fragmented. When she is old enough to look in the mirror and identify the reflection as her own self (the exact age at which this occurs will vary), she experiences a sense of “imaginary wholeness”. She can look at the reflection and say, “This is me”. From that point on, she constructs her identity as “I”, and strives to make her internal sense of self as unified as this external reflection (the “Ideal I”) appears. This is an exciting moment, since she has an “I” and knows that she exists, but it also comes with the frightening realisation that her fragmented self that was once intertwined with her mother’s body is now separate and distinct. She also develops a lifelong dependence on external validation, such as mirrors and the perception of other people, to define herself. Innocent introspection is replaced by external reflections. Mirrors, even non-haunted ones, turn people from subjects into objects.

Jean-Paul Sartre would agree that this is the beginning of an oppressive situation for identity formation. In his play Huis Clos (No Exit), three people find themselves in hell, which is actually just a living room in which they are forced to spend eternity together, without sleep. They are forced to exist as objects in the perpetual gaze of the “other”, rather than as subjects within their own consciousness. With no reflective surfaces in the room, a vain young woman desperately begs the other characters to “be her mirror” by describing what they see when they look at her. This ultimately gives her no better sense of who she is. We need external validation at the same time as we suffer from it.  “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” goes the famous quotation (“Hell is other people”). You are not yourself, you are located in someone else’s eyes, in the reflection of a mirror.

Image

Moving away from the intellectual and into the more obvious, mirrors regularly hurt us by facilitating a distorted body image. The film plays with the idea brilliantly. We’re used to women looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as fatter, uglier, or older than they actually are. But this mirror can actually make you hallucinate your husband calling you a “grotesque cow” and make you think he’s having an affair! This happens to the mother character (Katee Sackhoff) who succumbs to the mirror’s power, gazing into it obsessively. How’s that for distorted body image!

Oculus works because it plays on major human fears, the most obvious being a) dying, b) people we love dying, and c) physical and emotional pain. But those three fears alone aren’t what make Oculus interesting. Having a mirror as its villain means bringing out existential fears like d) not being able to trust your senses, and e) not being real. Any minor gripes I have with the film are redeemed by the sheer effectiveness of the central metaphor and the engrossing story. I can’t wait for Somnia, the next horror film from Flanagan, a talented filmmaker with a peculiar fondness for Latin titles.

But dammit, Flanagan, enough with the stretch-face ghosts with strange eyes. You don’t need them. You are better than that.

ImageImage

 

See you later, and hopefully much more frequently.

Iota

Film Review: The Quiet Ones

Image

I’m as excited as anyone about the recent revival of Hammer, the iconic British horror brand that specialised in Gothic B-movies. The prolific studio produced nearly 300 films from the mid-30’s until its forced hibernation in the 80’s due to a crippling lack of investment.  Although I’ve never seen a retro Hammer film that I would classify as “genius” by any kind of universal standard, the studio has put out an absurdly impressive catalogue of campy late-night fare. There’s nothing quite like spending a cozy evening in with some bizarre fight-scene choreography, gratuitous nudity, and Christopher Lee’s arresting stare. Now, history lives on under new CEO Simon Oakes, who has seen the company produce films like Let Me In (2010), The Woman in Black (2012) and, now, The Quiet Ones (2014).

Image

This is the second feature from director John Pogue, who previously made the surprisingly watchable Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011).  The Quiet Ones is set in 1974 and tells the “true” story of an Oxford professor (Jared Harris) and his dedicated students and cameraman (Sam Claflin) who attempt to document a link between mental illness and the supernatural by keeping an unstable young woman (Olivia Cooke) under observation in an extremely unethical study. They keep her locked in a single room of an old house out in the countryside, where they conduct experiments designed to “plunge a patient into mental chaos”, and force her to listen to “Cum on Feel the Noize” on repeat. However, it’s never entirely clear what kind of discovery they are hoping to make, as our lecherous academic fluctuates between the opposite modes of “There are mysteries science can’t explain” and “There must be a rational explanation” when confronted with Cooke’s strange and violent behaviour. Tensions and temperatures rise, the shouting becomes louder and the jump scares more frequent as the film jogs along at a steady pace towards its adrenaline-pumping (you’ll get it once you see the film) conclusion.

I thought this had a lot in common with last year’s The Conjuring. Both films have such bafflingly irrelevant titles that they could only have been drawn from a hat. Both, though set in the 70’s, are thoroughly contemporary horrors with only minor concessions to the period in the form of obvious music and wardrobe and some token zoom shots. The Quiet Ones may have a couple of sexy nods to Hammer’s skin flicks of the 70’s, but in a far tamer and disappointingly hetero way. The plots are similar, too, with their ghost/demon/whatever and the academic characters who attempt to understand and fight it with pseudo-science. However, with the exception of Harris and Cooke, the performances in The Quiet Ones are far more irritating than those in The Conjuring. Both make liberal use of cheap jump scares, but The Quiet Ones doesn’t try to do much else to unsettle its audience other than, again, the effective performances of Harris and Cooke.

Image

Even if I wasn’t impressed by the central mystery in the movie, at least there was a mystery. That’s one good thing I can say about it. If you’re going to make a film about scientists studying unexplained supernatural phenomena, it helps if it’s not just a simple case of A+B+C= vampire/ghost/demon/werewolf. When you watch The Quiet Ones, you don’t actually know what’s going on, which helped keep me interested in Cooke’s strange symptoms, since I couldn’t immediately diagnose them.

On a more personal note, this is the first film set in Oxford that I’ve seen since becoming a student here. Identifying colleges, libraries and landmarks that are now a part of my daily life was a fun distraction that I don’t normally get to enjoy in films (except those explicitly set in Toronto). Although the opening credits flash a bit of paperwork with the letterhead for the fictional “Latimer College, Oxford”, most of the filming locations were around Merton College, and one character is repeatedly seen wearing a Merton crest on his shirt. And, of course, there’s the obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs as our cameraman walks towards the Bodleian. It was eerie, then, to walk past that same spot on my way back from the cinema.

This was one reason why I had a bit of an epiphany about Freud’s unheimlich while watching this film. Yes, my mind had time to wander into my limited knowledge of psychoanalysis, which is probably not a good sign. The unheimlich (German for “uncanny”) is, in a tiny nutshell, a way of describing the unsettling feeling of seeing something familiar but… different. This is why it feels strange to see your city on film. This might also be why the children from Cronenburg’s The Brood are so disturbing: they look like they were made by someone who generally knows what children look like, but there’s something not quite right and, therefore, horrifyingly wrong about them. Actually, this is why I think film is a particularly appropriate medium for horror, since it necessarily creates artificial sights and sounds modeled after real life. What I noticed while watching The Quiet Ones is that the recurrence of set pieces, the repetition of a song, and the general insularity of the house all become something hideously transformed once things go pear-shaped. For example, we see that same heavy metal door with its two sliding locks and rectangular opening countless times throughout the film. As we get to the crazy, paranormal finale, the door’s familiarity grounds us in the setting of the story, but also becomes all the more disturbing because we are recognising it in a new context. Now that I type this out, it seems obvious that this is why horror films spend so much time on mundane actions and set pieces. Not only does it create a greater familiarity with the setting, but if done correctly, it allows room for that familiarity to be turned against the audience when things go wrong. But I digress.

Image

All in all, this is a dull but not-bad film with some good performances. I’ve never expected masterpieces from Hammer, but I’m thrilled that they’re back from the dead and doing interesting things. Far from finding a place of cult status like many vintage Hammer films enjoy today, The Quiet Ones feels more like it was made for the general movie public than for real horror buffs, who may catch themselves glancing at their watches. But I suppose we shouldn’t be too selfish.

Until next time,

Iota