Friday, February 14, 2014

When Is A Big Budget Bad?

So recently I proclaimed my love for the small-budget indie horror film Absentia, and made a point of looking up what the director - Mike Flanagan - was up to. Apparently, a short film he made titled Oculus got optioned to be turned into a big(ger than Absentia)-budget horror production with some big names in the cast. A trailer came out recently, and I'm…

…well, I'm a little concerned.

Comparing the trailer for the original short to the trailer for the big adaptation, it looks to me like a lot of what made Absentia really good is also present in the original Oculus short - specifically, it uses small, but important details, introduced without fanfare or histrionics, to communicate a sense of wrongness and unease. Little to nothing is telegraphed - it just happens and we have to deal with it. The premise is simple - there's a cursed mirror, and this guy's going to try and figure out the truth about it, and it all goes bad in a hurry.

By contrast, in the big-budget version, we've got all kinds of clich├ęs happening at once - abandoned attic, little children reciting some kind of creepy nursery rhyme, and the mirror's edge starts running…with blood! Ooooooohhhhhh! There's even a creepy stinger image at the end in case it had escaped our attention that this mirror is evil and does evil things and that's scary. It's trying way too fucking hard, and it misses the point that the original made so sharply. Evil is at its worst and scariest when it isn't announced, when it's just there, pure and horrific and unknowable. Giving things a mythology makes them less scary (albeit more franchisable) because it makes them more knowable, and frontloading as much spooky imagery as you can removes our ability to be surprised. It's not atmosphere, it's just visual shorthand of the Abandoned Hospital Syndrome variety, a lazy heuristic intended to tell us "okay, be scared now for reasons." One shot of an uncovered mirror in a bare white room in the original does so much more than all of the blood and creepy white eyes and little kids and decaying rooms in the remake trailer.

Now, I'm not trying to be one of those "the original was better"/"I liked it before it was cool" people, because that's just posturing bullshit. And trailers are by no means the best metric by which to judge a film's quality. It's just that in this trailer, I see early evidence of a particular directorial vision being compromised, and it's that original vision that big-budget horror needs more than any amount of CG blood or focus-tested trailers. I hope I'm wrong.

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