Friday, March 27, 2015

Oculus: Past Is Prologue

One of the more annoying narrative devices to show up a lot in horror film is the opening flashback. It’s usually a short, tense scene that ends with someone dying, usually though not always punctuated by someone else screaming, and then a title indicating that now it’s 15 years later or some shit like that. You can trace this at least as far back as Halloween, and I've discovered, having watched a fair number of films in the course of writing this thing, that this construction shows up a lot, and frankly it’s sort of tiresome. Like, yes, we know something bad has happened here or that the place has a terrible history or whatever - it’s a horror film, we didn't expect everything to be okay. Honestly, I think more horror films could benefit from the surprise evoked when we have no idea where the threat is going to be coming from instead of telegraphing it in the first ten minutes. Sometimes it’s used well, to set up reversed expectations or to misdirect, but just as often it’s a quick scare to say “oooohhhh! Bad things on the way!” That’s lazy and cheap.

But that’s a lot of words to basically say “flashbacks bad” when I’m about to turn around and talk about Oculus, which, although suffering from being less subtle than it could in places, is a deft exercise in examining the past’s effects on the present.

We meet siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell when they are very young, and something bad has happened. Their father has done something terrible, and little Tim - not more than ten years old - shoots his father to death. This is all revealed in a flashback, presented as a dream that now-adult Tim, 11 years later, has as a resident of a mental hospital. In this dream, he finally saw himself - not his father - holding the gun, and this is judged to be progress. He’s finally accepted his role in what happened, and he’s being released. Not really groundbreaking stuff, but it does set up much of the film’s thesis going forward - the intrusion of past on the present, the unreliability of memory, and the vagaries of perception.

Upon release, Tim reconnects with Kaylie, who grew up in foster care while Tim was hospitalized. She’s engaged and has a great job at an auction house. She’s delighted to see Tim, and any awkwardness he worried about dissipates quickly. Kaylie’s glad to see him out, wants to help him get set up on his own, and the sooner the better. See, she needs his help.

Everything that happened, Kaylie explains, happened because of an antique mirror their father had hanging in his home office. This mirror - called the Lasser Glass, after its first owner - has a long and bizarre history. The people who own it tend to die in very, very strange ways. Kaylie’s used her contacts in the world of antiques and estates to track the mirror, and she’s finally managed to secure it. She needs Tim’s help to destroy it, once and for all. She’s brought the mirror back to their family home, and she’s set up elaborate recording equipment and failsafes. She’s intent on proving that the mirror has supernatural qualities, that it was responsible for the death of their parents, and then she wants to destroy it, once and for all.

As far as Tim’s concerned, he’s just gotten out of the hospital to discover that his sister is barking mad.

What follows is an exercise in temporal, perceptual, and narrative unreliability. The film is about a cursed mirror, and so it reflects (ha-ha) distortions of both perception (we are not as we see ourselves in the mirror) and memory (we do not remember things as they happened). By placing the protagonists back in their childhood home, it enables the film to superimpose past experience upon present events, which works both as a narrative device and as an instantiation of the mirror's power - past and present blur both for us and for the protagonists, what they see (and so what we see) is not what is, and as the movie progresses the lines between these two things blur further and further until the end is almost a complete superimposition of one over the other. As viewers, we are as lost and unsure of what is real and what is illusion as the protagonists are, and only become aware of the terrible truth when it is too late. The use of recording devices gives us a perceptual counterpoint - we see the characters do something, and then see a playback that indicates something else entirely. We’re also subject to the unreliability associated with cinema - we see everything one way in one shot, and then in the next it has changed. We end up as wrong-footed by the depiction of events as the protagonists are by their experience of them.

In addition to the narration, the characterization is also nicely unreliable - none of these people are really fleshed out all that much, but you expect Tim to be the unstable one, having just been released from a mental hospital, but it becomes clear very quickly that he's the more stable of the two. Kaylie, having had to deal with the trauma of what happened when she was a child without any sort of professional help, has grown up to be someone who, on the surface, looks happy and accomplished, but it is a pretty skin stretched tight over the bones of obsession. Her entire life has led to this point.  Likewise, in the past, what could have been a stock-standard story of “one parent goes nuts, terrorizes the other” is complicated by an instability that seems to have nothing to do with the supernatural. Yes, their parents could be falling under the spell of an evil mirror, sure, or they could just be snapping from the stress of a recent relocation and starting a new business. Nothing is as it seems, textually, subtextually, or metatextually.

From a technical standpoint, Oculus shares a lot of the same strengths as the director's previous film Absentia - the juxtaposition of the supernatural with human failings like guilt and denial, a restrained and assured compositional style that doesn't telegraph every single scary moment - but the jump from indie filmmaking to something more mainstream means that some of the subtlety that hallmarked that film is lost. Music stings are a little intrusive, dialogue (especially in the beginning) is a little too baldly expository, the evil nature of the mirror is underscored a little too neatly (do we really need all of the whispering to tell us that the mirror is evil?) and all of this maybe makes the film a little more conventional than it should be. It feels at points as if the audience is being underestimated - not outright condescended to, but there were more than a few moments where things could have been even more underplayed and it would have still been really effective, if not moreso. It's a much less…crowded…film than the short with which it shares a title, confirming my hunch in its case that the short’s story was solid but needed more time to be told. This feature-length film borrows a lot of story conceits from the short, and giving them more time and room to breathe helps the premise tremendously.

The whole experience is one of characters and audience alike being immersed in the madness of the mirror, leaving you with the lingering feeling that even what you saw on the screen may not "really" be what happened, that there is some reality beyond the construct of the film, and we aren't getting the full story, which - shortcomings and disappointing conventionalities aside - is a hell of a trick for a piece of fiction to pull off.
I'm not one for sequels, but given the idea that the mirror is the character here, with a long and bloody history, and both this film and the preceding short are blissfully free of fussy mythology, I actually wouldn't mind seeing more tales of the Lasser Glass, especially if it remains as remote, sinister, and implacable as it does here.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Houses October Built: A Bunch Of Assholes In Rubber Masks

(Just as a prefatory note, this one’s a little spoilery)

Okay, it looks like I’m going to have to say it again. I tried to be nice, I tried to be polite, I tried to be fair, and I tried to be subtle, but as it turns out, that didn’t work.


Yes, sometimes the premise and narrative style makes for raw, immediate, unsettling filmmaking. Sometimes it makes for interesting metacommentary. But increasingly, it’s resulting in dumb, shoddy assemblages of cliches that never cohere into anything good, or even scary. Sloppy, lazy filmmaking that uses the home-video schtick as an excuse for poor cinematography, lack of action or character development, absence of mood, or a well-developed story.

Case in point: The Houses October Built, which hangs a slightly mean-spirited story on this narrative conceit in such an artless fashion that it actively borders on contempt for the viewer.

We open on a title card explaining that the footage we are about to see was shot by a group of people who were traveling across the country to visit haunted house attractions...or by the proprietors of The Blue Skeleton, an “underground” haunted house. Okay, first, the title cards are rarely a good idea. They’re usually overwrought at best, and completely ridiculous at worst.

The next thing we see, after some gratuitous video noise, is a presumably unconscious woman being stuffed into the trunk of a car. So, you know, no points for subtlety. Apparently, we are about to see footage of bad things happening to some people. Which, no shit.

What transpires is largely the video diary of five people - four men and a woman - who are going to take a trip through the Southwest and South, visiting as many haunted house attractions as they can, trying to find the scariest, most extreme “haunt” they can. The guys are pretty much bros all around, named Zack, Bobby, Mikey, and Jeff. Mikey has a beard and is pretty much the drunken asshole who gets you all kicked out of the bar because he can’t not do something he isn’t supposed to. The other three are mostly indistinguishable from each other, except one of them is really into the idea of the trip, like it’s his mission or something. The woman is named Brandy and I think she’s dating one of them and/or is the sister of one of the others, who can fucking tell. She’s a woman, and ultimately, that seems to be her most important trait. These people are ciphers at best, and our introduction to them is them passing around the camera at a bar somewhere in Texas as they’re getting ready to board their RV.

Whichever one of them masterminded the trip is intent on going to as many of the home-grown, rural attractions as possible, under the assumption that the more “backwoods” they are, the more extreme they’ll be because they’ll be less concerned with liability or safety issues and it’ll be a purer experience somehow. This is exactly the sort of patronizing bullshit you’d expect from a bunch of city fratboys who decide to slum it for some rural color, and that’s pretty much how they interact with the locals they meet at each attraction. This leads to the people they encounter becoming increasingly more and more hostile to them while they troop on, mostly oblivious, all the while searching for “The Blue Skeleton,” sort of the holy grail of underground haunted houses, an invitation-only affair that you have to be in the know to attend.

Until people from one attraction show up at another. Or by the side of the road between towns. And when even these dimwits start to realize that maybe some bad shit is about to go down, that’s when the invitation to The Blue Skeleton comes.

Honestly it’s not a bad premise - haunted houses are getting more and more extreme, some like Blackout ride a line between haunted house, BDSM experience, and art installation in pretty uncomfortable ways, some like McKamey Manor pretty much making the attendees willing participants in a live-action recreation of the August Underground movies. Playing with that idea of pushing the envelope in sort of an arms race of extremity, combined with what is undoubtedly a sporadically regulated seasonal industry could make for a really disturbing exploration of a hidden subculture and the price you pay for turning over too many rocks in search of cheap thrills. Of being the fish out of water, suddenly aware that you’re stuck in a strange town with a bunch of people who mean you ill, and nobody really knows where you are. The problem here is in the execution, stem to stern

The whole thing is presented ostensibly as found footage - shot either by the protagonists or by the people running The Blue Skeleton, but some of the footage makes no fucking sense at all. If they're documenting visits to haunted houses, well, most of them don't allow cameras in the first place, so there's a big problem with the whole raison d’etre for recording right off the bat. Second, why the fuck do they have remote cameras installed inside their RV? For that matter, why are there remote cameras installed OUTSIDE the RV, on the roof and the grille and the side? And they are definitely supposed to be there - there’s a brief scene (becoming sort of obligatory in any multi-camera found footage film, I think) of the cameras getting installed and tested. Yes, we get it, we see the characters put them there, and it’s the filmmakers trying to quick-cheat conventional camera angles with a paper thin narrative rationale. There's no possible reason for the location of these extra cameras, and worse, they aren't even taken advantage of in a way that you'd expect - if someone places a camera somewhere, you expect it to capture useful footage, to be important to the story. Nope, they mostly just capture interminable footage of the highway and the protagonists slouched in the RV, bored with the road.

Which leads to another problem - the pacing. Pretty much the entire first half of the movie is just the protagonists driving through Texas, going from haunt to haunt, alienating people and being out-of-town assholes the whole way, interspersed with long stretches in the RV full of nothing. It's not really a slow burn, it's more than nothing happens, occasionally interrupted by tiny bits of something, until the second half of the movie when things begin to escalate. And then the escalation is a problem, because we’re faced with an implausibility that makes having remote cameras on the roof of an RV look downright sensible. If these yahoos are being threatened by angry locals (which certainly seems to be the case), why on earth would the angry locals film all the shit they're doing to these people? The first scene in the film proper is a body getting thrown into a trunk, and we see the person starting to come to as the car drives off. Only this is all ostensibly found footage. Why the hell would you not only record yourself kidnapping someone but actually I swear I shit you not put a camera in the trunk of a car, especially if you're going to be using it to kidnap someone? It goes beyond laziness and an inability to commit to a narrative conceit and loops around to actively dumb. It didn’t just take me out of the moment, it set the moment on fire and pissed on the ashes. It made me angry with how dumb it was. And the very end of the film takes this idea one step further in ways that just scream “we didn’t just not pay attention to what we were doing, we actively stopped caring at some point.”

And if the unsympathetic characters and the gaps in narrative logic and the erratic pacing weren’t enough, there’s a pervasive aimless and lack of focus right when things are supposed to get really tense. When things do escalate, there's never really a clear sense of what's happening to the protagonists - there's neither a point where it becomes definitively clear that they've gone past the point of no return, nor is it really the case that things get worse and worse without them really noticing until it's too late. Bad stuff happens, and at first they disregard it because they don't live in a horror movie which, fair point, and then they disregard it even though most sane people wouldn't, and then it just becomes a matter of "we have to do this anyway, we've come this far" which is the hallmark of bad writing, because that's essentially shorthand for "there's no plausible reason why anyone would do this but otherwise we wouldn't have a movie so welp!" Basically, bad things happen, more bad things happen, and then the protagonists find themselves in a really bad place, stuff happens to them that we don't really get to see, one final really bad thing happens, film over, smash to black and title. With no sense of escalation, progression, or location of the protagonists in any kind of narrative space. First they're here, then they're there, then they're somewhere else. And there are bits of real menace throughout - some of the interactions with angry locals look pretty fucking real, and Brandy, as the sole woman with this group of guys, is singled out for some seriously ugly treatment at a couple of points. Credit to the film, there’s no gratuitous nudity (oh no wait, there is, when they decide to go looking for directions at a strip club), but the sum total of Brandy’s existence seems to be “get menaced by really creepy rednecks.” In a better movie, it’d be really unsettling, but here it just feels exploitative and gross.

At the end of the day, you've basically got a bunch of angry rural types in "scary" costumes menacing a bunch of out-of-towners to lethal ends, interspersed with a bunch of interview footage of haunted house workers who exist only to hammer home the point that oh yeah, weird bad shit could happen at a haunted house - people get injured, lots of these folks don’t have insurance, safety permits or inspections, people don’t vet employees and the people who work at them could be really unbalanced to begin with, so OOOH THEY COULD BE IN DANGER, and it's painfully obvious the first time, totally unnecessary the eighth, and actually kind of shitty and insulting to the people who live in the country and run haunted houses  by the tenth. The film never rises above the obvious, and as a result is never scary or even unsettling. It's like so many haunted houses that promise a genuinely frightening experience, only to deliver people in stupid costumes popping out and going "boo!" and expecting you to be impressed.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix