The Halloween season is upon us once again, and for me that means I’m watching a lot more horror movies than I normally would. Over the last few days I watched Oculus and Sinister, in that order, both of which are rather recent releases. I enjoyed them both — especially the former — but watching them has got me particularly thinking a lot about explanations and the unknown in the horror genre.
As any horror enthusiast knows, some of the best scares and feelings of terror come from the unknown. What isn’t explained is much scarier than what is laid out for you. If something becomes understood too much it loses a lot of its bite. Both Oculus and Sinister got me thinking about this because of how each handles this aspect of horror.
Oculus was exceptional in this respect. I did not find the movie to be particularly scary though. In fact, the basic idea of it — haunted item affects and terrorizes a family — is rather generic when taken at face value. What the movie did that was so exceptional to me was how it delivered this story. The movie is about a brother and sister in their early 20s who survived a traumatic experience as children when their father tortured and killed their mother and almost killed them. The siblings believe an antique mirror in their father’s office was responsible for the incident, and 11 years after the fact the two come together to see to its destruction.
Much of the present day plot is spliced with flashes back to their childhood incident, mounting to the point of becoming disorienting, as it becomes unclear what is happening in real time, what is true memory, and what is an internalized experience triggered by them confronting their trauma. This is what really made the movie for me; it’s never certain whether they are actually dealing with a supernatural object with the mirror, or if they are experiencing psychosis as a result of trauma.
Coupling this with the fact that the origin of the mirror, though it has a graphically storied past, is not explained either, makes it all the more creepy to consider. Spectres are seen, but they all seem to be past victims. Whatever actually inhabits the mirror is unknown, if there even is anything at all. The characters don’t know for certain they’re dealing with a supernatural entity and neither do we. While I didn’t personally find it horrifying to watch, the story and the circumstances were terrifying to consider.
Sinister did a lot of things right and about just as much wrong. The story is about struggling True Crime writer Ellison Oswalt and his family who move into the house where the previous residents were murdered, where he hopes to be close enough to the source material to make his next book a hit. He discovers super 8 film reels in the attic that contain footage of the previous family, as well as many others who were all murdered in elaborately disturbing ways, and becomes determined to solve the mystery laid out before him.
As it turns out, these events are all tied to an obscure, pagan deity called Bughuul. What puts a bullet in the head of a lot of the terror for me in Sinister is how they handle this antagonist. The background we learn about him could have worked, had it not been for the fact that we see entirely too much of him and what we see simply isn’t scary. From my perspective, he looks like he stepped off of a metal album trying to imitate the style of Internet horror figures like Slender Man. To put it simply, he looks cool, and that doesn’t inspire any true fear.
What I really liked about Sinister was how it told its story. The true threat to Ellison and his family isn’t realized until the fatal conclusion, where we realize what has been happening all along and what Ellison’s investigating has done. The movie only vaguely hinted at the effects Bughuul was having on the others in his family, and that made the conclusion all the better. So, the villain himself was explained too much in appearance, but the story was kept wonderfully secret until the right moment. This is something that I haven’t found to be done very often in the horror genre, which at times is perhaps too eager to make sure the audience is aware of what is at stake.
Regardless of the negatives, I think both Oculus and Sinister are good offerings to the horror genre in how they throw key explanations to the wind to aid the horror of their stories. I recommend them both for people looking for something good to watch for the Halloween season.