2014's leading horror film may also be its best exploration of obsession and revenge.
2013 (them)/2014 (us)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (based on the short screenplay by Jeff Seidman and Mike Flanagan)
With Karen Gillan (Kaylie Russell), Brenton Thwaites (Tim Russell), Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell), Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell), Annalise Basso (Young Kaylie), and Garrett Ryan (Young Tim)
THE QUIET ONES
A genre exercise that can't even manage to be interesting on the level of formula.
Directed by John Pogue
Written by Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman, and John Pogue (based on the screenplay [presumably regular-sized] by Tom de Ville)
With Jared Harris (Prof. John Coupland), Olivia Cooke (Jane Harper), Sam Clafin (Brian McNeil), Erin Richards (Kriss Dalton), and Rory Fleck-Byrne (Harry Abrams)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Quiet, we're filming.
Two horror films entered wide release in the first half of 2014, both of them driven by a freezing-cold rationalist approach to supernatural happenstance, and the only reason they don't make a great double feature together is because one of them sucks.
The one that sucks is The Quiet Ones, and forget its thematic similarities and identical release year: the reason it's gotten smashed into a dual review is because it's fucking tedious. I wasn't sure I could get even 500 words out of it. Obviously, I underestimate my verbosity, but let's take our medicine, and dispense with it as quickly as possible.
Quiet is the story of a cameraman working at Oxford in the 1970s, shanghaied into documenting the Mengelesque pseudoscience of one Prof. John Coupland, an amoral, arrogant man who has devoted a great deal of funding and what seems like several years to torturing a woman named Jane Harper. Coupland won't quit until he's proven 1)that she has telekinesis, which seems like it would be more than enough to get scientific recognition, and 2)that telekinesis is a manifestation of trauma that can be drawn out of her and something-something fake-psychology. (But I haven't introduced Quiet's entire cast yet: in a turn that is no less dull for its egalitarianism, the film also features one Man Slut and one Woman Slut, respectively. Their major narrative function is to turn knobs, but sometimes they also manipulate various scientific devices. Rimshot.)
Approximately 80 minutes of the 98 minute film are spent circling that lonely plot point: Coupland has gone too far, no one is doing anything about it, why don't we do something about it. At this point Quiet realizes with numb satisfaction that it has reached feature length, then Carrie and/or The Fury happen, underwhelmingly, with a hearty dash of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (actually namechecked in the movie). Given how underwhelming The Fury already is—outside, of course, the splendid vision of John Cassevetes' full-body explosion—you can imagine how disappointing Quiet's telekinetic denouement must be. The sole exception is a nice crane-lift of an actor as seen through a doorframe; this is the only moment that director John Pogue seems to realize that the cooler telekinesis is, also the scarier it can be.
Apparently, the formal aspects of the film—its shifts from old-timey found-footage to third-person objective filmmaking—have something to recommend them. Smarter people than I have expounded upon them, and they're usually right about such things. Personally, I still think they're being awfully charitable. If I had to guess as to the origin of its half-subjective/half-objective approach, it'd be that director John Pogue simply happened to see Sinister back in 2012, murmuring to himself "8mm sure is inherently scary! I wonder if it'd still work, if I tarted it up with a copious slathering of horrid, horrid CGI?" And, much like his tenured antagonist, no one stopped him from running with this terribly incorrect impulse until it was too late.
Quiet has some of the trappings of an old Gothic horror, and there's no reason why it shouldn't—it comes to us by the reborn Hammer Film Productions, their sixth release following their resurrection. Unfortunately, the good Gothic horrors of old—besides being physically shorter, some by fully 20 minutes—never feel as static or as personality-free as their latterday descendant. Perhaps the best of this breed is AIP's House of Usher, which manages to make a compelling film out of a script that, if you really look at it, consists almost entirely of Vincent Price whining—but that is Vincent Price for you. Instead of Roger Corman's masterpiece, then, let's take something closer to home as our counterpoint: for all Quiet recapitulates its sins, the old Hammer's first true horror picture, The Curse of Frankenstein, still knows how to avoid seeming straight-up boring.
It's Peter Cushing's mad scientist who propels Frankenstein, and fittingly the only saving grace of Quiet is Jared Harris' performance as its own nutty professor. When another character shrilly shrieks at him, "You'll never get away with this!" Coupland utters the film's single great line, screaming back, "Of course not! Are you insane? There are two dead bodies in here!" If it were not obvious before, in this moment it becomes almost too blinding to bear: failing to center The Quiet Ones around its only dynamic character ruined the film conceptually long before the first frame was even shot.
...And, then, there's Oculus!
The bad news is that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been pushed, pretty irrevocably, off my evolving Top 10 list for 2014; thus my year-end articles won't so clearly further the image I've been carefully crafting this last year and a half, that of a contrarian moron. The better news is that, in distributing this film, Blumhouse Productions has finally made full reparations for inflicting Dark Skies upon us. The great news, though, is that 2014 managed to produce at least one classic wide-release horror movie. In fact, it's the single best of its kind since that aforementioned superlative, Scott Derrickson's Sinister. (And this is the part where you wonder if I remember 2013's resolutely-fine homage to Amityville and The Exorcist, hyped beyond all human endurance as the second coming of haunting movies, and I assure you that I do remember The Conjuring—vaguely.)
Dismissal of consensus favorites aside, I do love haunted house movies, and Oculus—in all its essentials—is a prime example of the form, taking place in 2002 and 2013 in the same blighted suburban home. Technically speaking, however, it is about a haunted object, an evil magic mirror that kills, but first drives mad.
In 2002, the mirror came into the possession of the Russell family—mommy Marie, daddy Alan, daughter Kaylie, son Tim. The end result of their feckless effort at interior design is that Alan and Marie went insane, Alan killed Marie, and to stop Alan from doing the same to him and his sister, Tim fatally shot his father. Naturally, Tim lands in a mental institution. Over time, he comes to realize that his belief in an "evil mirror" is just the trauma talking. As far as these things go, he's a model of recovery. Meanwhile, his unincarcerated sister has spent a decade positioning herself so that, as luck would have it, she could take custody of the mirror just in time for Tim to be certified sane. Thus he'll be free to help her carry the heavy cedar-framed item from her car back into the death house, this being the only part of her plan that seems like it could have gone seriously wrong, since—obviously—Tim refuses. Right?
"Oh, and I also need you to help me prove that all your nightmares are true and that the mirror really, totally is a doorway to hell. You know, if you don't already have plans."
Tim does not refuse.
It's possible that the only way Oculus could be better-conceived would be to rebuild it as full-tilt psychological horror. As it stands, you know going in that there's no way that the the mirror's depredations would ever end up being genuine delusions. But asking Oculus to be something it's not, and doesn't want to be, isn't particularly fair. If the version of Oculus that exists feels to you like someone leaving a better screenplay on the table, at least credit it with being (nearly) the best version of what it does want to be. In some respects, what it wants to be is less a horror film than the world's weirdest revenge thriller—and in that mode, it is essentially a tragedy in the classic sense, complete with a hubristic hero desperately pursuing a glory that will also wipe away her shame.
Oculus' strength—especially in comparison to The Quiet Ones—is that it knows exactly who its most interesting character is, and cedes her the stage. Kaylie Russell is an ecstatically good protagonist, and while I should wait maybe more than a day to declare her "my favorite hero in a horror movie ever," I really can't avoid feeling that she's somewhere very close to the top. More than anyone else, this is thanks to Karen Gillan, whom I have always liked but have never previously had cause to call truly excellent until now. Oculus is Gillan's film, right from Kaylie's introduction via her ponytail, swinging like clockwork as her elaborate plan to document and destroy the mirror nears its final phase.
Karen Gillan: physical performer.
Kaylie's the classically-trained mad scientist in every regard but the Ph.D. itself, so gorgeously arrogant that when the mirror first tries to eat her, she's barely able to keep from joyous laughter, because what this means, above all, is that she is right.
In the film's pivotal acting piece, Gillan near-monologues a history of the mirror that took up 13 pages—a full tenth—of the screenplay. It would take an enormous talent to domesticate that verbiage—and they got it. Gillan turns a lecture into character work: each fact underlines Kaylie's own pathology as much as it does the appetites of a vampiric, perspective-warping mirror. While it's not erudite enough to be Paddy Chayefsky, that same exposition-is-magic spirit is present here: Kaylie feels like she'd be perfectly at home helping Dr. Jessup set up a new and improved sensory deprivation tank. The upshot is that Oculus feels like a haunting film's third act writ large: it begins at what seems like full speed already, gaining even more momentum before it smashes into its harrowing conclusion.
Against Kaylie is Tim, the wet blanket with the thankless task of arguing against the existence of the supernatural in a supernatural horror movie. Yet, due to a script that gives him good counterpoints, a backstory that explains his willfull blindness, a solid performance from Brenton Thwaites, and a quick turnaround once the mirror inevitably does manifest its power, his nagging is not only tolerable, but fun, providing an object for Kaylie's indulgent condescension.
Together, Gillan and Thwaites' present-day adventures are so fascinating that they become the enemy of the good enough, the "good enough" represented here as their 2002 selves in a pair of objectively pretty great child performances. Investing as these scenes in 2002 are, I also found myself anxious to return to 2013. Ultimately, however, the film stops forcing you to choose—and this is where I get to exult over Oculus as a true filmmaking accomplishment.
Oculus announces itself within its first few minutes as a film made by someone who earns his bread as an editor, and who has also tired of continuity editing, with a pair of shots that cross the 180 degree line, signaling a short transition in time, and a major transition in circumstance. It's probably Mike Flanagan's single most unconventional cutting decision (it would almost have to be), but there is a singular attention to his art in Oculus.
The bedrock of Oculus' bridge between the present and the past is my favorite editing trick of all, the match cut. Some of these are extraordinary, a few are admittedly clumsy, but the overriding impression is that in the presence of the mirror time itself collapses into a single point. Not coincidentally, this is precisely what the film is saying about an event so horrible that the shape of its memory might be altered, but never truly forgot. By the end, Kaylie and Tim's past is so inescapable that mere cross-cutting gives way to the the adults physically passing their childhood selves on stairs—finally, even recognizing each other. Taken altogether with its obsessive hero and exposition-happy script, Oculus is the horror film Chris Nolan would've been proud to make. (And, if Flanagan never read From Hell, I'd be positively amazed.)
Yet for all that I've spoken of Oculus like it's flawless, it isn't. Firstly, it is not terribly scary. This is not necessarily a damning problem, since once you correct for rounding errors every horror movie ever made suffers from the same defect. (The reason Oculus is often unscary, however, can be pinpointed: it's in the derivative design of the mirror's ghostly projections. This alone probably wouldn't be enough to make them lame, but then there's the cheesy sub-"Thriller" effect that is also applied to make their eyes seem to shine.)
No, I get it.
Ironically, though, its horror (as distinct from its frights) is more lingering, resembling in many ways In the Mouth of Madness, possibly the scariest movie ever made. Madness indulges in jump-startles and grody monsters—probably even moreso—but the horrifying part isn't the surface thrills, but rather the pervasive sense that reality can be no more solid than our perception of it. I wouldn't like to oversell Oculus—it is not an equal to John Carpenter's greatest film—but it does wield some fraction of its power. (There is also some excellent, understated grue, bypassing our psychological defenses against ridiculous super-murder, more content to let us crawl in our skin at the sight of bodily torments we've probably experienced ourselves.)
More nettlsome than the deficit in heart-stopping scares, however, is the nature of the mirror. Despite the heady matrix of rules that are said and shown to govern its behavior, it is far from rigorously conceived. In a film that consorts so readily with cosmic horror, this oughtn't be a problem, but the ramshackle notions defining its feeding habits bleed right through the veil. It sucks the lifeforce out of plants. It swallows smaller animals whole. With adult humans, however, it seems to eat their happiness. As for children—well, it doesn't seem to have any direct influence upon kids whatsoever. Flanagan, in his commentary, seems to think this all makes sense, but he is wrong.
The single most serious problem with Oculus, of course, is that it leaves the confines of the children's perspective, to visit with Alan and Marie. It's a mistake that can only be explained by the presence of semi-famous character actors in the roles. The result is a senseless obviation of Oculus' fun with point-of-view; but even on its own terms it's valueless. Alan and Marie's solo scenes stake out a claim in limbo: they neither fully characterize their descents into madness, yet they drag us bodily out of the uncomprehending terror experienced by their children.
Still, these are hardly fatal errors. I come to Oculus late, and thus I've had the opportunity to see its reception at large. The greatest contention seems to be with the ending (see, e.g., Friend Brennan's expression of disappointment—and he's hardly the sole voice to register that complaint). For my part, only one possible finale even suggests itself as a tidier resolution, one I'm hardly certain would be better. No other possible ending besides a bad one recommends itself at all. The climax we get fits perfectly the tragedy Oculus has set up from its very first moments. I never got in front of it, but even if I had, I can't imagine respecting it less. It ends the way I prefer my horror movies to end: bleak, in death, in madness, and, not to put to fine a point on it, horrifying.
Score, The Quiet Ones: 4/10
Score, Oculus: 8/10