Lights Out; or, Lets Not.

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We all saw it: that absolutely brilliant 2-odd minute short horror film that was terrifying in its simplicity. The Lights out short was a marvel, a true, horrifying standout that made you squirm in record time. The film drew on the common phobia of fear of darkness which works well for the horror medium itself, in that horror movies often pit what we can see and what we cannot see against each other in order to entice suspense and fear into the viewers.

But what happens when you give a short film director a big budget? The same exact thing that happened a few years ago with Mama (2013, Andres Muschietti). This was also a powerful short horror film, that was incredibly effective in its medium, but rather was most effective in what was left unexplained and not explicitly stated.

When drawn out to fit the 90-minute format, however, both films fall flat and lifeless. Stretching a 2-minute film out to 45x its size leaves us with holes and weak spots: poor writing, bad acting, questionable twists, inexplicable turns and abrupt endings and conclusions. For a film with a powerful fear behind it (fear of the dark) I expected a lot more from the premise… instead we are subject to a drawn out affair that is predictable and annoying in its delivery.

Into the nitty-gritty: the criminally negligent mother, played my Maria Bello, basically sleep-walks through the film, in what may be one of the worst roles I’ve ever seen her in. The semi-emo, pseudo-alternative daughter played by Teresa Palmer seemed to take a page from Christian Bale in Batman, but forgot that raspy voice is not actually acting.

Again, I cannot help drawing a parallel to Mama, because Jessica Chastan’s character in that was basically one and the same: Angsty alt-female thrown in to motherhood role. There are other rudimentary parallels: the poorly developed yet hastily introduced plot; the “ease” at which the mystery is unraveled as there is never really any great mystery, instead clues are clumsily tossed into the plot; Same goes for the summation of the story, which is recklessly and haphazardly slapped together, often leaving the audience with more questions than answers.

All of this being said, I’m not mad at the directors of either of these films (David Sandberg for Lights Out and Andres Muchietti for Mama). For what could be blamed as “selling out” I see as “taking a chance at a huge opportunity”. What new director wouldn’t take a chance on their film if Hollywood producers were willing to throw money at it? It’s not as if every director can pass up monetary opportunities for artistic integrity, which is a disappointing, but ultimate reality. In these circumstances, I blame producers investing to make a quick return, rather than investing in quality. Because, again, the concept centering around the fear of the dark is one rife with opportunity, and could have been potentially as memorable as the source material it came from. Instead, the movies comes across as hastily and slapped together as it no doubt was made.

But I guess I’ll just have to wait for the cyclical nature of the film industry to come aorund: perhaps someone will do a remake of the feature-length short film, and perhaps then, they will do it right.

 

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The Conundrum of High-Production and Bad Writing

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This is a movie dump focusing on two of the higher-budget horror movies to emerge from 2016: The Forest, and The Boy.

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These movies are the definition of spectacle and voyeuristic viewing: we watch sometimes behind clasped fingers and sometimes between gulps of laughter. The appeal of films such as these are that they are constantly including the viewers, breaching beyond the bodily text of film to achieve active and involved viewing. These films draw me back time and again in that they deliver what they promise: twists and turns, jumps and starts, inexplicable conclusions and unsuspecting deaths. The review whether good or bad is irrelevant – the point is I’m watching, I’m engaging with the film itself through a plethora of emotional and physical responses, including, but not limited to, fright, terror, anger, confusion, humour and laughter.

Plot aside, these two films actually hold a lot in common: female protagonists, high-production, hidden filming locales, cheap scares, and awful writing. Again, what these films do tend to succeed in, and do well, time and again is to evoke visceral physical reactions out of the viewers. Whatever our reactions may be, a sigh from disbelief, a jump from  fright, covering our eyes from gore, shock from a right-turn plot twist, these movies successful cause us to engage with the film body itself, the textuality of the film code.

Many movies can cause such reactions but none so easily as the horror movie itself, particularly the high-production one in that they pull out all the stops and make full use of all the elements they have access to in building a diegesis. Elements such as lighting, camera angels, terrifying makeup or realistic effects, and powerful mood music.

Often I hear people say they either love or hate horror movies: I think it’s this visceral interaction that they are actually referring to. Some people simply do not like to engage with the filmic (horrific) body, while others are addicted to such interactions. I go into these films with preconceived expectations I assume from the genre, including these bodily reactions. It’s very often when these movies fail to adhere to these codes or exceed them that we get the truly stand out movies: the truly awful and the truly great.

But these movies are neither, really. They just exist as a part of the horror medium. They do not change the genre or surpass it, nor did they miss the mark: they just are. Which in a way is maybe the most insulting thing one can say about a horror movie in that they do not stand out for any memorable reason, they just fade into the pile of already “okay” horror films.

 

The Witch – Band of Bitches

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Robert Eggers has made a massive directorial debut with this chilling supernatural-psychological horror film.

This New-England style folk-tale follows a family as it is torn apart by possession, betrayal and of course, witchcraft. It is superbly made, as equally chilling in aesthetics and theme as in subject-matter, however, this film ultimately works on as many levels as it fails.

Some critics have argued that it works better as a psychological horror than a supernatural thriller. I, however, feel it works well in its use of uncanny, where everything is wrong, in some way or another, and one never fully knows what is the cause of such unrest until the climactic reveal.

I do still feel that the film could have pushed harder on the titular Witch who is reduced to only a few on-screen occurrences and possibly never even the true threat to the protagonists.

According to Eggers, the devil as evinced through the Goat, Black Philip, was initially supposed to be more involved in the film with much more onscreen presence. However, a lack in the animal’s training reduced the Goat’s on-screen time. Eggers claims he is still pleased with the outcome of the film despite this, which I agree with, in that it certainly made for a thrilling climactic reveal. But again, I do see it as a bit of a failing in the film as well, in that after learning Black Philip’s true nature, the constant references to the rabbits and the eerie presence of nature itself, can come across as a tacked on post-thought.

Many questions are left unanswered: was there only one Witch? Or were there many? Why was the family kicked out of the commune at the beginning? What was with the rabbits, anyways?

And what does this film say about women, really? The satanic looks damn enticing compared to the squalid living conditions of their farm. And all only at the cost of a simple baby. But what is this film really saying about women, the divine feminine or even female community? That the only way of getting out of arranged marriages or being literally sold to another family, is through allegiance to Satan and murdering a baby or two to bathe in their blood and live forever?

I know I’m being a bit over-dramatic, but it is still an example of the gendered nature of horror films – in that the role of the female is somehow intrinsically dark, and ominous. That the anxieties of women can manifest themselves into very real, very dangerous entities like ghosts, demons and of course, witches. It’s a fear perpetrated from the puritan age and really very little has changed from then to now.

TIFF Top 10: Sleeping Giant

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Sleeping Giant is an excellent comparison piece to my previously reviewed film Les Demons, in that this film touches on similar themes of youth and fear, but, as the boys in this film are slightly older, themes of sex, desire and rebellion coalesce.

Synopsis: Adam meets troublesome cousins Nick and Riley while on summer vacation on the shores of Lake Superior. Clearly from different worlds, Adam struggles to fit in and find his place in their stimulating world of carpe diem adventures.

The film, written and directed by Andrew Cividino is a first feature-length for the young director and a very touching and humbling film. The film avoids strong assertions and obvious lessons; like Les Demons, this is another film where often what is left unspoken is much more powerful and important than what is overtly stated. These dynamics are played out on screen visually with the interactions between the boys: Nick and Riley are loud, often saying far too much about superficial things, while Adam is quiet, not nearly speaking up enough, even in defense of himself. What the film lands on is the possibility of language to fail us – that we may feel things we cannot express, and that simply by speaking one may be suppressing their true emotions.

I am specifically avoiding labeling this film as a “Coming of Age”, in that there is no singular defining moment in the film that fits this genre. The movie is riddled with moments, rather, of “coming of self” in which every character (except, notably, one) on screen at some point, eventually, has the realization that their actions have consequences, and affect others, perhaps more than they wish.

We are also subject as viewers to some powerful cinematography, by James Klopko,which truly gives power to those moments of quiet emotion as previously mentioned. We as an audience, can often only assume or sympathize to how the characters are feeling, we are not overtly or explicitly told. Thus, the film is a tactile, sensual, affect-experience. 

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This film is also, joyously, as Canadian as it gets. The location is never hidden and is rather celebrated (Sleeping Giant being an actual physical canadian location as well), full blown Canadian accents are often in effect, and even the musical score is Canadian, from original score by the band Bruce Peninsula, to tracks by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco. This is a rare distinction for many English-Canadian films that bend to outside pressure and “Americanize” in order to reach a wider audience. By not “avoiding” place, Cividino has actually presented a story defined not by place itself, but by true human experience. 

 

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Les Demons

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This is a continuation of some of the films that were showcased at Toronto International Film Fesitval’s annual top ten of Canadian Content: #seethenorth.

While I struggled to see the merit in Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest, Philippe Lesage’s Les Demons is, in a word, exceptional. Undoubtedly Canadian, the film is complex, nostalgic, quirky, funny and simultaneously tragic. The film follows Felix, a young boy on the brink of adolescence, who comes to understand the emotion that plagues so many adults: fear.

Les Demons is the first (completed) feature film by Lesage, and as such is a tremendous accomplishment. We can see Lesage’s work history as a documentarian influence the film in that one of the strongest features of the film is the camera-work and cinematography. The film evokes constant use of the deep-focus long-shot: in which the camera slowly zooms-in on something on screen while never having any of the shot go in or out of focus. It is a beautiful technique that fits the lackadaisical pace of the film.

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The film focuses on main character Felix, but also those immediately around him: His family and their friends, his friends and their problems, his teachers and other authority figures. All of the characters, however long they are presented on-screen are adequately rounded, dynamic and complex – a very difficult feat to reach, but one Lesage accomplishes admirably and thus a feature of his film-making I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

My one critique of the film, however, is the story-arc involving the life-guard from the neighborhood pool. While it’s a necessary and poignant plot-line, at times it feels too disconnected from Felix’s world, in that these are scenes that are not facilitated by Felix directly, and as such feel strangely added-on at times. It’s a shame because these scenes could have been integrated more smoothly into the narrative without coming across as disruptive to Felix’s story.

As previously mentioned the film revolves around the emotion of fear: fear riddles Felix but also every character in the film to some degree: Fear of rejection, of punishment, of heartache, etc. all the fear is being gazed upon by Felix who quietly acknowledges and reacts to it all. There are some very real fears in the film, a possible pederast and kidnapper, but mostly it is the emotional fears that are at play, fear of the family breaking apart, fear of abandonment and so on. By employing a dark, ominous classical score, the music in the film is also an excellent accompaniment to help instil a constant stream of dread while never fully giving way to full-blown misery.

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Fear is the driving movement in the film, yet, the film has surprising and touching moments of relief when the pain is somehow rectified by points of happiness and joy. This makes the film much more even-handed and relatable, in that, while youth can be a scary time, there are still junctures of joy and safety.

For a movie entitled The Demons I was expecting an all-out Canadian fare: depressing, and everyone dies at the end. And while there is most certainly a tragic and horrifying few scenes in the film, mixed with the light-hearted moments I mentioned previously, it is a much easier film to digest than other French-Canadian, suburban-Montreal studies of coming-of-age, such as the beautiful but emotionally gut-wrenching Canadian-classic Leolo (Lauzon, 1992). That being said it also appears to me that while tragedy seems to be on it’s way out, the other distinctive attribute of Canadian cinema, “weird sex”, does not seem to be a defining narrative for many of these newer Canadian films anymore. Felix beginning to discover his sexuality is briefly covered in the film, but not dwelled upon, and certainly not as disturbing as when touched on in other films like, again, Leolo.

Based on the few movies I saw for the festival, I think new-Canadian movies are moving away from the depressing. While not abandoning it completely, it seems that sad-moments and pure anguish are no longer the conclusion to a film, but rather a plot point the characters move around, and try to survive against, hopefully, coming out stronger in the end. Despite tragedy, there is still joy, despite fear, there is still hope, making this new era of Canadian cinema much more accessible.

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Into the Forest

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Toronto International Film Festival recently played their collection of Canadian content in their annual screenings of Top 10: #seethenorth.

The festival was initiated by the high-profile Patricia Rozema film Into the Forest (2015) starring Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page.

The reception of this film is as turbulent as the psudeo-sci-fi plot line: In the not-too-distant future a massive power outage causes two sisters to band together in the face of apocalyptic adversity.

This is not a movie of quiet subtlety. I’m convinced it was intended to be, however, with moments that included Crystal Pike’s dance-choreography, the secret eating of chocolate, the importance of half a can of gasoline, etc. All moments that were intended to make the audience realize our reliance on modern technology. Thus, small moments unfold obviously, and at many times without adequate or satisfying explanation.

Is this a feminist film? While not overtly feminist it is clearly feminine. The primary location is set deep within the forest, as the title would suggest, and as such there becomes a clear and rather forced binary between the forest (feminine) and the man-made (masculine). This dichotomy tends to follow the same tired association of the feminine being linked with safety, warmth and comfort, while the masculine is connected with pain, hardship and hurt.

There is a painfully obvious motif at play with the girls “tree fort” in the woods behind their home. The fort, built into the stump of an old tree, and only accessible through a small opening one must crawl through. It is a place in the film where Ellen Page has sex (for the first time), that keeps the women safe during a storm, and a place where Wood’s character gives birth. Plainly, this is a womb: a place of pleasure, safety, and creation, it even LOOKS like a womb with the entry one must crawl through to enter or exit. The family home, a man made creation, natch, is spontaneously and inexplicably burnt to the ground using the remaining gasoline – man-made destroyed by man-made: a taste of it’s own medicine. But why did the women burn down the house that contained ALL the books page’s character referred to throughout the film? The ones that helped them eat, survive and, you know, give birth? The movie is riddled with such thoughtless momentum.

All of the men in the film are portrayed as static archetypes: the father, potentially the only interesting character in the film meets his end after having his chainsaw backfire while trying to chop down a tree (read: he attempted to use a man-made instrument while attacking the feminine thus he deserves to die of his own hubris). Page’s boyfriend is portrayed as “annoying” and irresponsible, ultimately problematic as he is a wedge that would drive the sisters apart. And the only other male character on screen: a rapist who inexplicably finds the girls home, literally in the middle of nowhere in the woods, and proceeds to rape Wood’s character making her, temporarily, afraid of the outdoors and the feminine, since it betrayed her sense of safety.

In place of what could have been an interesting feminist study in the face of apocalypse, one is left feeling annoyed by the obviousness of it all. Across the board, reviews seem very set on the mediocrity of the film, some arguing that the film didn’t push hard enough. However, I felt that the film pushed too hard, just in all the wrong places. 

There is is another problematic aspect to this film in the wake of a “canadian top 10” film festival. Again, this is a film largely hidden in its “place”. Though one can recognize the superb, pristine British Columbian landscape, it is still easily interchangeable for California redwoods. This is coupled with the fact that half-way through the film “Boston” is dropped as a pin on the map. This is simply an example of yet-another “Canadian” film disguised, hidden, as if that very label is somehow shameful.

To conclude, this is a “Feminist-Canadian” film that is neither feminist nor Canadian; a “sci-fi” that relies solely on melodrama;  an obvious-film trying too hard to be subtle; a film one can confidently say fails. Lights out, just like the power in the diegesis.

Indisputable: Best Horror Movies of the 2010’s

A couple years ago I did a 30 horror movies for 30 days of October in celebration of my favourite “holiday” – Can you guess it? – Of course it’s Halloween. Part of being an individual with eclectic tastes involves constantly changing your mind, so in lieu of making an entirely revised “top-10”, “top-30”, “top-whateverthefuck”, I’ve decided to instead try and narrow down my list. I’m also attempting to celebrate the plethora of new voices and visions emerging in this dynamic genre while not feeling bad for excluding my favourites and classics.

Note: This list came at no easy lengths, as I watch the purposefully bad, downright terrible and truly disgusting. As any great horror fan knows, a true gem is a rare find indeed, the right combination of scares, tropes, music and atmosphere – among other criteria. For every one of these films there are at least 5 crap-tacular films which isn’t to discredit those that were so very close, the ones that could have been but just failed to ultimately deliver the goods.

In no definitive order, here follows the (indisputable) best horror films the last 5 years has to offer:

Evil Dead (2013) – Fede Alvarez


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A great tip of the hat to the original



My expectations were as high as any other die-hard Evil Dead fan. In fact, when this was announced I almost decided to boycott the film entirely. After all, why try and improve upon perfection? But this film really surprised me – It had great scares, great over-the-top gore, and just enough homage to the original that it was a delight for any fan of the original. This film managed to straddle the line between delightful pastiche to the original, while keeping it fresh and unique unto itself. It also managed to expand upon the Evil Dead Necronomicon mythology without stepping on too many shoes.

The Sacrament (2013) – Ti West

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Most film buffs have giant boners for Ti West and I’ve never ever been one of them. I hated House of the Devil and despised The Innkeepers possibly even more. Now that being said, this film is characteristically Ti West. I guess the format of his films finally seemed to fit for me in this project, rather than in the pseudo-throwback used previously. This often just came off gimmicky and cheap to me. West’s characteristic slow-buildup worked perfectly in this film, which follows a film-crew as they enter an unnamed country attempting to research an elusive cult. It’s also quite masterful in the telling how such little outside influence managed to destroy the foundations of the entire congregation. The slow buildup of course, implodes into an exciting and violent buildup – I say this was West’s best work to date, taking his “signatures” and signing a work that is original instead of his usual throw-back to a decade of film long ceased.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – Drew Goddard

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Possibly the most paused scene in the film

This movie speaks for itself. Joss Whedon broke everyone’s brain when this was released and horror-nuts rejoiced. Actually, even non-horror fans rejoiced. This movie is just great. It subverts a genre while simultaneously embracing and celebrating everything and anything horror. Just the right mix of horror-comedy without being campy or bridging on lame, this movie had it all : hot babes, stoner comedy, zombies, the unicorn, secret societies, gore, violence and the end of the world (?). This tops almost everyone’s list of Top horror films of the 2010’s let alone top horror of the last decade, and some even arguing top horror EVER. There are tons of pages out there dedicated to spotting the tiniest of nerdy detail from the mise-en-scene, and as such this film instantly garnered a massive cult following.

V/H/S 2 (2013) – Assorted

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Just…watch it.

While there was the first V/H/S and the newer V/H/S: Viral which both have some notable submissions, V/H/S 2 really throws it out of the park. Following the faux-snuff anthology format from the first film this one went into hyperdrive. It’s like the first one going down the highway 200KM/ph and nailing a sudden turn in the road – while viral stopped short, for example. Of course the entire thing came to a jaw-dropping climax during Gareth Evan’s “Safe Haven” – which perhaps is my one complaint during the entire thing, because they should have ended with this beaut. I feel sorry for the poor bastard that came after because I barely remember it. I doubt it was a weak spot or anything, it’s just… how can you compare to the balls-to-the-wall ridiculousness that just went down? The best anthology film of the early decade, but not the biggest, 2012 had The ABCs of Death which had some great contributions but as a whole failed to deliver.

Sinister (2012) – Scott Derrickson

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The opening sequence.

While not terribly original necessarily, a very admirable and well done additional to any ghost/demon themed horror movie. It’s got all the usual tropes – a mystery to solve, faux-leads, twist ending, jump scares, etc. – but nails them all perfectly. My favourite of all these was the jump-scares which definitely had me tensing pretty hard, and even had my boyfriend asking me to walk him down the hall to the bathroom afterwards. A nerd’s note: the sound design was also very interesting in this film, as displayed most strongly when Ethan Hawke’s character is watching the old tapes but also in that freaky scene where the children’s ghosts are running around silently in the dark, bounding in and out of shadows. The sound design in itself was responsible for some of those jump scares I mentioned earlier, while simultaneously it was the lack of sound in some of the murders which made them all the more disturbing to watch. Apparently there is a sequel coming out soon, but I doubt it could be as good, as it has minimal involvement with the original crew, which is never a good sign. I’ll still watch it though.

You’re Next (2011) – Adam Wingard

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Same-same… or is it?

Any favourite horror movie of mine will either nail a genre right on the head, or else subvert it – playing off your expectations, literally using your expectations to gain a certain explorative power over you as a viewer. This film is the latter. It uses your expectations for a typical “home-invasion” type horror thriller to pull off it’s twists. While I normally derive this genre of horror film, such as, infamously, The Strangers (2008), this film excelled by subverting viewer expectations, taking a new, powerful approach to the genre altogether. I would consider that a success.

The Conjuring (2013) – James Wan

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A movie so good it sparked it’s own – albeit crappy – spinoff, Annabelle (2014). I chose this one versus Insidious (2010) and the sequel because, although James Wan really kills it in both (literally and figuratively, natch), The Conjuring managed to take everything that makes James Wan an excellent horror director and roll with it even harder and without remorse. My favourite thing about Wan as a director would have to be his use of pace – there’s no slowing down in this film, no unnecessary leads, and no time wasted at all. There’s a problem – okay let’s deal with it – instead of going through the typical motions of denial and doubt. Wan also manages to artfully employ just the right amount of comedic relief at just the right time, almost exclusively to keep you from having a heart-attack from the tension. His biggest success is my favorite in the jump-scares though, as the most frightening moments happen when you most expect it but almost always from a direction you are least suspecting it – think it’s coming from in front of you? It’s above you. Behind? Below. Beside? Infront. This never fails to give me a huge jump. Can’t wait for the sequel of this bad-boy to come out either.

Kill List (2011) – Ben Wheatley

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No surprises here: I wrote a post a few years back about this being one of the best horror movies of 2011, it still is and clearly extends to the 2010’s.  I’m not sure what’s left to be said about this movie that is at times relentlessly violent, disturbing and at times even humorous. A new take on an old classic: cults, this film will leave you deeply troubled as the ending comes to a cataclysmic, disturbing conclusion. Although somewhat depressing, there are many small details that are worth entailing a second viewing, and memorable moments seared into your mind whether you want them to or not. Powerful visuals and strong story telling come together to make this an exceptional horror film.

The Skin I Live In (2011) – Pedro Almodovar

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A ceaseless, unrelenting, non-stop thrill ride that somehow ends on a more disturbing note than it began. This is a film you cannot look away from – the storytelling is masterfully woven together in a non-linear fashion and Banderas plays a perfect psychopath, who is twisted, cruel and at times even sympathetic. This was the Antichrist (2009) of 2011, in that everyone had something to say about it. Mixed with artful cinematography and a touch of science fiction, this is a truly unique film – something that has never come before, and I would employ anyone to try and come afterwards.

The Babadook (2014) – Jennifer Kent 

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Quite arguably the most talked about horror movie of the year, The Babadook came out with a big splash. Things seemed to have quieted around the film recently, but if you’ve seen the film, the shadows surely haven’t. This film is deeply psychological and extremely sympathetic – a great testament to loss, grief and melancholy as a mother and her son try and cope in the wake of a terrible catastrophe. The main protagonist comes in my favourite form of power – the acousmatic: that which we never truly see the figure, we are only given hints to it’s appearance, and can hear only through what can be described as a disturbing guttural groan. As far as I know, it’s never been done before but I have a feeling children’s storybooks may become a new trope in horror.

Oculus (2013) – Mike Flanagan

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One of my personal favourites, Oculus is a wonderful mix of surreal, absurdity and hallucinogenic realism that you never truly know what is happening to our protagonists until the very end. The film literally keeps you on your toes, and starts to make you feel very near well mad by the end. I’ve never seen a horror movie with such a great pace, diving into the action only to give you some backstory interspersed throughout the action, all climaxing simultaneously. This movie was a wonderful combination of all that I love in a horror movie: mystery, a bit of blood, jump scares, and madness.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Disagree?