What scares you most in the horror genre? Masked killers in isolated settings? Booby trapped razor wire rooms? Demon possession? Werewolves? Ghosts? Those are all well and good, but nothing messes my shit up more than psychological uncertainty, the feeling that anything you see might not be real, and the layers of your perception are gradually being fucked with in a subtle way. Such are the terrors that Mike Flanagan’s Oculus traffics in, a film that takes postmodern horror expectations and strangles the life out of them in favour of something far more effective. You’ll read surface level summaries claiming this to be about a haunted mirror. It…is. Sort of. And it isn’t. Then it is again, and before you know it you have no idea what’s real and feel like leaving the television and hiding in a back room for fear of an incoming dissociative episode (true story). See, the haunted mirror is just the suggestive tip of a very dense psychological iceberg, a starting point to a narrative that’s disturbing in ways that few big budget horror films understand. When an idyllic American family moves into a perfect new house, life seems peachy. Following the arrival of an ornate antique mirror, things take a darker turn. The loving patriarch (Rory Cochrane, exuding natural charisma) turns fiercely psychotic, preying on his doting wife (Katee Sackoff) and terrorizing his son (Garrett Ryan) and daughter (Annalise Basso, terrific in a performance of true hurt and horror). The mirror seems to indeed be the source, but no clear correlation is ever established by the film, only heavy suggestion gnawed at by the notion that the parents may just be irreparably sick in the head, an idea just as, if not more scary than a sentient looking glass. After brutal tragedy, we flash forward a decade or so, the parents are gone and once again the daughter, now played by a dynamite Karen Gillan, tries to get to the source of what happened by locking herself, her brother (Brenton Thwaites, the only weak leak in an otherwise excellent acting ensemble) and that dang pesky mirror in their old house to destroy it. Bring on a panic inducing haunted house of the unconventional variety, one where something, either the mirror or inherited mental illness, plays endless nasty tricks of the mind on both of them until the viewer feels uncomfortable in their own thoughts, the fabric of internal reality ready to disintegrate into shards. Their plight is carefully interspersed (big kudos to Flanagan, serving as his own editor) with flashbacks to the harrowing ordeal they went through as children, as the loving parental unit collapses into madness before their eyes. Listen for a hair raising, subversive score by The Newton Brothers that just adds to the queasy cauldron of unease that this film is. It’s more brilliant than any widely released horror film has any right to be these days, a huge step in the right direction for the genre and a waking nightmare for anyone whose worst fear is losing their mind.
Being a huge fan of the two previous Riddick films, I was overjoyed to hear that Vin Diesel would be raiding his own couch for change to save up in order to make this R rated follow up, still helmed by David Twohy. It’s reassuring that in a franchise with more than a few haters, Diesel has the passion and ambition for his character to go out of his way in bringing this to fans. Not to mention what a kick ass, gnarly little space yarn it turned out to be. Pitch Black was a claustrophobic horror fest set on a single harsh world, and The Chronicles Of Riddick opened up into a vast galactic space opera. This one reigns it in closer again (partly because of budget, I would imagine) and gets back to the roots established in Pitch Black. After defeating the Necromongers and becoming their King, Riddick is betrayed and sent into exile by the treacherous Lord Vaako (Karl Urban in a brief but memorable reprisal). Cast out into the stars with a ship running low on fuel, he finds himself marooned on a small, deadly planet that’s more challenging than any other he has found himself on (and if you remember, he has been to some hellish little nooks in the past). This world is a dry, acrid rock where every form of wildlife seems to be incredibly lethal, and out to get him. The first half of the film is pure genius, and consists of Riddick playing Survivorman with his environment, battling aliens and elements and befriending a small hell-pup type doggo that grows up into a teeth and claw ridden killing machine that is at one point referred to as a ‘dingo dango thing’. This is where it’s at for the film, and as soon as the more generic second half arrives, the air gets a bit stale, but it’s still heaps of fun. After mastering the terrain and ingeniously dispatching a snakelike alien that seems to have wandered right in from Wolfgang Petersen’s Enemy Mine (practical effects POWER), he encounters trouble of the human variety, in the form of bounty hunters. Two teams of outlaws have arrived to claim him: the stern Boss Johns (Matt Nable) who has an old bone to pick with Riddick, and the psychotic A-hole Santana (Jordi Molla, who I think of as the Latin Gary Oldman). They bicker a whole bunch on who gets the prize, unknowingly being infiltrated and messed up by the guy before they’ve barely landed. Katee Sackhoff is nutso awesome as Dahl, a lesbo tough chick who legit has the line “I don’t fuck guys, but occasionally I fuck them up.” Soon there’s more charming wildlife, this time in droves of shrieking reptilian predators who intend to see each of them, Riddick included, dead. This forces an amusingly unstable team-up from all forces to battle the uglies and escape this godforsaken place. It’s giddy sci-fi pulp good times, and benefits from its hard R rating, something which the other two films never had on their side. Diesel was born to play Riddick, the growling teddy bear, and I hope he gets to continue wearing the goggles for more of these movies, indefinitely if possible. A hell of a great time.