In a Mirror, Grimly

When historians look back on the horror cinema of the 2010s, Mike Flanagan will undoubtedly be considered one of the decade’s most influential filmmakers. Though he lacks a distinct breakout hit, Flanagan has quietly built a reputation as one of the finest directors working in horror today, and if 2017’s Gerald’s Game isn’t considered the best of the recent glut of Stephen King adaptations, it’ll only be because he outdid himself with Doctor Sleep, his upcoming sequel to The Shining.

Flanagan’s first success, the film that made him a director to watch, was 2013’s Oculus, and, for my money, it’s still his best work. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the psychiatric hospital where he’s lived since the deaths of his parents: the official version of events is that Alan, his abusive father, killed his wife, Marie, and was about to kill his children before Tim shot him in self-defense. Years of therapy have convinced Tim of the official story, but his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), is not so persuaded. She uses her job at an auction house to get her hands on what she believes was the true cause of their parents’ deaths: a cursed mirror called the Lasser Glass with a long history of death in its wake. She invites Tim back to their childhood home to document the mirror’s deleterious effects on the human mind, proving the innocence of both Tim and her father, and then destroy it.

Suffice it to say, despite Kaylie’s extensive precautions (three cameras filming the mirror at all times, temperature monitors in every room to detect paranormal activity, alarms to remind her and Tim to eat and, most famously, an anchor suspended from the ceiling that will smash the mirror if a manual timer isn’t reset every thirty minutes), things don’t go according to plan. The mirror can completely warp human perception, even erase memories. In one of its simplest but most effective gotchas, Kaylie takes a bite from an apple, only to see the mirror has tricked her into eating a lightbulb, which then immediately turns back into an apple. Though broadly well-received, a small but vocal minority criticised the films’ ending, which leaves the viewer completely uncertain which of the film’s events, if any, actually happened. But I have the answer.

None of it actually happened. It’s a movie.

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What is Beyond the Frame

M. Night Shyamalan knows that you know who he is – or, at least, that you think you do. He’s the twist guy! His early work, particularly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, received such acclaim that Newsweek declared him “The Next Spielberg” in a cover story published three days after the release of Signs. It’s a cliché of latter-day Shyamalan coverage to contrast this praise with the direction of his subsequent career, as the diminishing returns on his work turned him from wunderkind to has-been.

He’s since made a proper comeback, with the runaway success of Split, which sucks, but back in 2015, he was still a joke. A literal punchline, a memetically bad writer and director, whose most recent movie, After Earth, was a sterile, indulgent pile of crap based on an idea by star Will Smith, operating at the height of Smith’s ego. His previous three films – Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender – regularly appeared on lists of the worst films ever made. But, most importantly, he was the twist guy. So the story goes, he got so much praise for the genuinely brilliant twists of his early work that he couldn’t stop chasing the same high, trying to outdo himself with each film. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t true – it’s astonishing how many people have made fun of the twist in The Happening, a film that does not have a twist – because it quickly became the totalising narrative of his career. Particularly on the Internet, his shittiness and this specific explanation for his shittiness became the conventional wisdom, in much the same way that memes and groupthink convinced people Nicolas Cage is one of the worst actors in the world, rather than the best of his generation.

M. Night Shyamalan is the twist guy. Except he’s not. But he knows you think he is. So, back in 2015, he decided to play a prank on everyone. It’s called The Visit and it was his best film in fifteen years, so obviously it got wildly mixed reviews. People’s brains just go all wobbly when it comes to this guy, for some reason.

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Things Like This Are Not Supposed to Happen in Our Neighbourhood

The Purge franchise is one of the stranger phenomena in modern popular cinema. Its financial success is unsurprising – it is virtually impossible not to profit on a wide-release horror film – but it receives constant commentary far outstripping its popularity.  All but one installment of the Insidious franchise, Blumhouse’s other four-film horror series, outperformed the corresponding installment of the Purge franchise by a significant distance, but barely made a blip in the cultural discourse. There’s just something about The Purge that inspires furious fits of hot-takery.

Obviously, part of what makes it such a popular topic is that it’s just about as overtly political as horror comes. No one needs to tease out subtext when they’re writing about The Purge, because there is no subtext. Everything is helpfully signposted by the filmmakers. The official rationale for the Purge – a 12-hour period every year when all crime, including murder, is legal – is that it promotes social harmony by giving everyone a sanctioned time and space to “purge” their negative feelings. They credit the Purge with producing extremely low crime and unemployment rates, less than one percent, and they’re right to do so. But it’s not because everyone’s working out their anger issues by murdering each other. It’s because the wealthy are able to fortify their homes to protect themselves from the Purge, while the poor are not only without protection, but actively hunted by the wealthy, who can also afford to arm themselves better than the poor. Every year, rich people spill into the streets of this dystopian future America and murder the impoverished and vulnerable en mass. It’s not psychology, it’s eugenics. The Purge could let you work this out on your own, but it doesn’t want to leave any ambiguity, so the first film is peppered with news reports where this point is made explicitly. Lots of reviewers criticised the lack of subtlety: we get it, we get it. The Purge is about class warfare.

Except it’s not. Not really.

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Double Features #1: See Them and Weep

The double feature dominated popular cinema for thirty-odd years, back when a night out at the cinema was actually a whole night out. After sitting through a mix of newsreels, shorts, serials, cartoons and advertisements, the audience would watch two films. First, the B-movie, shorter, cheaper and uglier, with nobody actors and hacky writing, and then the main feature, with its big stars and exquisite Hollywood production values.

Nowadays, unless you’re a professional journalist, seeing multiple films in one day is, unfortunately, an extravagance. Apart from just wishing people could just see more films more often if they want, my own experience of irresponsibly blowing all my money on going to the cinema, especially around awards season, has often resulted in me discovering movies that pair wonderfully as double features, because of similar subject matter expressed in different aesthetics, opposing or at least disparate takes on the same themes, or a combination of both.

It’s not the same kind of magic as those you stumble across on your own, but I have suggestions of double features that would make a great night in. Two of them were spontaneous discoveries (the ones where both films came out the same year, obviously) while I developed the others from the highly scientific method of watching a film and thinking “huh, that would pair well with this other film I like”.

Fair warning: these are all pretty heart-wrenching movies.

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What Is It You Like About This House So Much?

When I saw mother! in the cinema, I could feel the discomfort of people around me. Shortly before the film ended, I heard a woman declare at the full volume, “Well, that was crap.” It was a big chain cinema in a screen with rows going back to Q or something ridiculous, and it was almost empty.

mother! was given about as wide a release as is possible, and it was buzzy and controversial and starred Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, and besides, it’s a horror film, which are virtually guaranteed to make a profit. But most people will not like mother!, and lots and lots of people hated it. It’s a brave, strange thing, that made me think I can’t believe what I’m seeing in a way that I thought was kind of impossible in the internet age. Every swing it takes is big. And it couldn’t give less of a shit if you don’t like it.

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The Anxious Christianity of Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker. Since his 2005 breakthrough with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he’s had a string of commercial successes, some of which were even good movies. There was his terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, his excellent horror film Sinister and his addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, which, like most Marvel movies, was good, but not particularly so.

On paper, there are a lot of directors like Scott Derrickson: variably good, but consistently profitable, making films that millions of people see, but almost none of those people know their name. Horror and comedy are full of these directors. Sure, tens of millions of people saw Annabelle: Creation and Central Intelligence, but who amongst us can really say we know who made them? Usually, I’m dimly aware of these financially-successful mid-tier directors and don’t super care about them. But I make an exception for Scott Derrickson. That’s partly because his best films are sincerely great, but mostly it’s because he’s one of the few successful and influential Christian directors working in mainstream cinema.

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Notes on Split

I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.

And it did.

Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.

And I hated it.

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Weekend at Bernie’s Is Not the Film You Think It Is

Weekend at Bernie’s might be the most misunderstood film I know. It was a hit in 1989, despite bad reviews, and has had staying power since: the image of Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propping up Bernie’s lifeless body is seared onto the cultural memory, one of those iconic cinematic images that has been parodied and homaged and referenced enough to take on a life of its own beyond the film itself. It’s a very famous film, is the point – though not exactly acclaimed – but when I watched it, I kind of felt like the first person to ever see it.

Here’s what I assumed Weekend at Bernie’s would be like: an extremely dumb, extremely wacky 1980s comedy, in the vein of Porky’s or a National Lampoon movie, that is probably not very good but has a kind of charm that not very good films from the 1980s tend to have. I knew the basic plot – two guys pretend another guy, Bernie, is alive, while staying at his place for the weekend. I assumed – either because it’s how it turns out in any given Weekend at Bernie’s-inspired TV episode, or because of the existence of Weekend at Bernie’s II – that Bernie wasn’t really dead. That our heroes found him unconscious and panicked, but, by the end of the film, Bernie would wake up, and we’d arrive at our happy ending.

Weekend at Bernie’s is something much stranger, and much more interesting.

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The Real Lesson of Get Out’s Success

Get Out is one of the best horror films this year, and it’s been a particularly good year for horror. The directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele, Get Out is the story of Chris Washington, a young black photographer who reluctantly agrees to meet his white girlfriend’s family for the first time. Bad things happen. As well as being really, really good, Get Out was phenomenally successful, grossing $254 million over a $4.5 million budget.

If a movie is critically acclaimed, financially successful and not a blockbuster, chances are that its financial success will be followed by a series of articles on what lessons Hollywood should take from its success. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s predictable enough that I wasn’t surprised when it happened to Get Out.

I hate these articles.

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