Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso
Directed by: Mike Flanagan (“Oculus”)
Written by: Mike Flanagan (“Hush”) and Josh Howard (“Before I Wake”)
I firmly don’t believe in the paranormal, and think it’s patently ridiculous that any mass-market product made by a toy company could possibly channel the undead. That’s why I’ve never been scared of an ouija board—it has a barcode on it, and the new ones even need batteries. What does a spirit need with batteries anyway?
Still, the brand has value and Hasbro, the toy giant behind such cinematic masterpieces as “Transformers” and “Battleship,” holds the licensing rights and someone at the company though “sure, why the hell not?” when it came to adapting the parlor game into a movie.
Just before Halloween in 2014 we got “Ouija” and it was awful. Two years later, we’re treated to the prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and, in spite of the previous effort and the fact it’s based on a board game that pretends to be a tool of dark magic, it’s actually not too bad.
Set in 1967 Los Angeles, a widow named Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) conducts séances in her home, setting up the illusion of supernatural powers with the help of her two daughters, Paulina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson). Sharp-eyed fans who loved (or even remember) the first film may recognize the names of the sisters from the backstory recounted in the present day, but don’t worry, you don’t need any prior knowledge of that piece of shit movie.
Anyway, after Paulina sneaks out of the house to hang out with friends and play with an Ouija board, the sisters suggest to Alice that one of the games might spice up the readings for clients. When Doris tries to use the board alone to contact her late father, a dark spirit inhabits her, allowing her to command the board with her mind and seemingly talk to the dead—which Alice immediately uses to her advantage to gain new business. But when frightening things start happening, Paulina reaches out to her Catholic school principal Father Tom (Henry Thomas!) for help in taking down the evil that’s haunting her family.
The ‘60s setting and low-rent con artist racket that Alice runs with her girls add immediate flavor to a premise that is, ultimately, just another haunted house story with an Ouija board in the mix to make good on the licensing. Still, it’s a story fairly well told, even if some of Alice’s choices, like the one to exploit her daughter’s obviously chilling new ability, never really make sense and the climax moves forward with little regard for anything other than getting to the point where the backstory in the first movie (which, again, who the hell remembers that?) lines up with what has happened on the screen. Maybe this new-found quality will be further explored in a Magic 8-ball spin off in a few years. Outlook not so good.
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
Directed by: Mike Flanagan (“Absentia”)
Written by: Mike Flanagan (“Absentia”) and Jeff Howard (debut)
For a solid two minutes in “Oculus,” it seems like the filmmakers are about to turn the possessed-object-terrorizes-a-family formula on its ear, offering up a plotline wherein one character nearly convinces us that the protagonist has actually fabricated a reality in which the destruction of her childhood was caused by a haunted mirror and not, in fact, that special brand of extraordinary human misery that sometimes tears people apart. It’s always an exciting little zap when horror movies find new ways to tell a story and subvert clichés but, no, it’s a haunted mirror after all. This doesn’t make it bad, really, just more of the same.
The haunted mirror in question was once in the childhood home of Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), an antique brought in by their father (Rory Cochrane) to class up his office. The mirror’s arrival is followed by increasingly strange and deadly occurrences in the house. Plants die, the family dog succumbs to a mystery illness, and their mother (Katee Sackhoff) begins to lose her mind after staring blankly at the mirror for hours. The paranormal activity comes to a crescendo with Kaylie and Tim fleeing their possessed mother and father, both of whom end up shot to death; their mother by their father, and their father by Tim. Kaylie ends up in foster care, Tim ends up in the back of a police car.
Eleven years later, Tim is scheduled for release from the mental institution he’s been confined to since the shooting, while Kaylie has spent years tracking down the evil mirror on a mission to kill it. She brings Tim to their childhood home with an elaborate plan including cameras, computers, and a boat anchor meant to destroy the mirror once and for all. But the mirror has other plans, and starts to fight back.
The two plotlines of “Oculus” unfold almost at the same time, jumping from present day to flashbacks for the entirety of the film, eventually co-mingling the timelines to a most confusing effect. The climax in particular is a labyrinth of flashbacks and editing tricks that doesn’t earn its shocking ending; instead it feels like someone jamming a bunch of Final Cut Pro sequences together until they get to the part that goes splat. And storytelling tricks aside, the film can’t escape the fact it’s borrowing from predecessors like “The Shining,” “Friday the 13th” and “Paranormal Activity.” Still, though, “Oculus,” produced in part by the WWE, is solid enough for a decent Saturday night scare and mercifully wrestler-free.
In an attempt to give a new twist to what he calls the “well worn” horror genre that features some kind of evil presence disturbing a happy family in their happy home, filmmaker Mike Flanagan, 35, hopes he’s pushed the right buttons with “Oculus,” a horror/thriller adapted from his own 2006 short film of the same name. In the film, a young woman (Karen Gillan) and her brother (Brenton Thwaites) must find the truth behind a creepy antique mirror that may or may not have been the cause of their parents’ death when they were children.
During our interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Flanagan talked about why he feels this kind of “suburban horror” movie is where real horror can be found and explained the importance of editing “Oculus” himself since it constantly jumps between the past and present throughout the entire film.
I don’t want this interview to sound like a counseling session, but can you tell me about your relationship with your parents since there is such an eerie family dynamic in “Oculus?”
It was actually incredibly happy. I had a very well adjusted, normal childhood. I’m sure my parents and my brother are curious, too, when they see this stuff. I’m sure they’re like, “What’s going on here?”
Are there things during your childhood that you thought you remembered, but as you got older those memories started changing little by little like the characters in this movie?
Oh, yeah. I think we all have that. If I’m alone in that, then maybe something is wrong with me after all. There are certainly a lot of things I remember happening in my childhood, especially in grade school. I’ll talk to my brother or my parents about it and they’re like, “No, that’s not the way it happened!” I think our memories are very subjective things.
What struck me about “Oculus,” compared to other horror movies where a parent goes crazy like in “The Shining” or “The Amityville Horror,” is that these kids have no one on their side since both parents are possessed. I felt a deep sense of hopelessness for them. Was that a conscious decision when writing the script?
Yeah, as a horror fan, I tend to really like suburban horror, which is really well worn territory – the haunted house and the intrusion of evil into what we assume is a really safe environment. I think that’s why we keep telling these stories. That strikes something very primal in us. Evil can infiltrate where we’re supposed to be the safest. There’s nothing that’s supposed to be safer than our relationship with our own parents. Those are the two people in the world who are supposed to protect us at any price. To turn that relationship on its head, especially when we see it happen in real life, those events are so traumatic to us as a society because we can’t possibly wrap our heads around how that can happen. It just seems like it’s against our basic wiring. I think that’s where true horror lives.
How important was it to you to be both the director and the editor of this film? There are so many edits between the past and present, were you editing the film in your head as you were shooting it?
Yeah, it was actually critical for me to be able to edit the movie myself. The transitions between the two stories were actually so specific that we had to write them into the script. The structure in the finished film exactly reflects the structure of the screenplay. All of those edits had to be planned out very meticulously. If we hadn’t been able to keep track of the edits, we never would’ve been able to complete the movie on schedule. There wasn’t room for any error. It was certainly in the front of my mind throughout the entire process.
Was there time to stop and explain to the actors what was going on during certain scenes? I mean, I can only assume it got a bit confusing on the set.
Yeah, they were an exceptionally bright cast and this was a very challenging process for everybody. One of the things we did try to do to make it easier for them was take the script and italicize everything that was part of the past storyline and leave [the text] in the present normal. By the third act, there were paragraphs of descriptions that had different individual words italicized. I hoped that it would give the actors a sense of how the timelines were merging. It was just as confusing for me and the script supervisor as it was for the cast. Fortunately, we chose actors who responded to that kind of challenge with excitement.
The kids in this film are really good. On that note, I’ve read that some of the scenes where violence against the children is depicted, specifically the choking scenes, bothered some people. How do you defend those choices if people bring those scenes up and say they were uncomfortable watching it? Or is making them uncomfortable the point?
I don’t think I really need to defend it. Movies speak on their own terms. I think there are horror movies you can go into and expect comfort and then there are horror movies like “Martyrs” that push you so far out of your comfort zone, that it could be a traumatic experience to view. There’s a wide section between. [“Oculus”] is the movie we wanted it to be. Danger to the younger [actors] is what makes it a horror film. I’m sympathetic to the people who find that to be too much for their taste, but I think that means [actors] Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan have sold their performances and played them with conviction that people are having that reaction. I can tell you from shooting the movie, those scene were some of the most fun for the kid actors to shoot. They had a blast. I’m sure if Annalise knew those scenes disturbed people so much, she’d be grinning from ear to ear.
So, what becomes of Dog, the French bulldog in the film? He goes outside and we never hear from him again. A fellow critic at the movies with me hoped you’d make a sequel and call it “Dogulus.”
(Laughs) Yes, there is a story to be told of Dog’s incredible escape from the backyard! I think regardless, based on the rest of the way the movie went, I think Dog is going to require some extensive therapy for the short amount of time he spent caged up against the mirror. But I think a lot of people are very grateful that Dog lives to fight another day.
See more 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival coverage here.