31 Days to Scare ~ Hypnotic (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman seeking self-improvement enlists the help of a renowned hypnotist but, after a handful of intense sessions, discovers unexpected and deadly consequences.

Stars: Kate Siegel, Jason O’Mara, Dulé Hill, Lucie Guest, Jaime M. Callica, Darien Martin, Luc Roderique

Director: Suzanne Coote and Matt Angel

Rated: NR

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I spent way too much time during the new Netflix thriller Hypnotic wondering if leading actress Kate Siegel (The Haunting of Bly Manor) was wearing a wig.  Time I should have been spending focused on the story and characters, but the film tends to skimp in those areas to such a degree that I kept coming back to that darn wig. 

We’re supposed to understand at the beginning of the film that Siegel’s character Jenn is feeling lost in life, having suffered a miscarriage, separating from her fiancé (Jaime M. Callica), and just generally not knowing what direction her life isgoing in.  This manifests itself in her hair outwardly displaying the inner turmoil she’s experiencing.  After being introduced to handsome Dr. Collin Meade (Jason O’Mara, One for the Money) at a housewarming party and agreeing to a hypnotherapy session with him, Jenn starts to pull herself together.  After three months, her hair game is TRESemmé chic and she’s even warming to the idea of patching things up with her former flame. Then her phone rings and she wakes up hours later to…a bad situation.

Hair seems to be an important topic of Hypnotic…and not just in this review.  Another patient of the mysterious Dr. Meade has an issue with hair, and we’ll come to learn that three of Meade’s previous patients bear a striking resemblance to his late wife…and all have died under mysterious circumstances.  Guess who they all look like as well?  As Jenn’s close circle of support begins to dwindle under suspicious circumstances, she looks deeper into her hypnotist’s past and uncovers a danger she has little control over.  Enlisting the help of an already case-curious detective (Dulé Hill), Jenn will need to figure out the end game before the doctor can get close enough to exert his power.

It’s always a bit discouraging to see actors you like (Siegel has been so consistent in every project) struggle with substandard material and Hypnotic is very middle of the road stuff.  It’s well made and far above average in the casting department, but the whole thing has the whiff of a project everyone made just to keep the lights on at their home.  No one seems that invested in the outcome and that lack of true conviction winds up showing up across the board. 

Perhaps it’s because the script from Richard D’Ovidio is a little thin and a lot silly, putting the onus on the actors to fill in too many gaps in the narrative with some overly earnest theatrics that put them at risk for straying into overacting.  Or maybe directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote just never get the tone quite correct.  There are admittedly a few nice scenes, and one truly unsettling reveal of a hiding place but add it all up and it’s only halfway there.

I won’t use the power of suggestion to nudge you either way toward Hypnotic or not, but if the actors appeal to you and a B+ production of a C+ script sounds like your cup of tea for the evening then by all means, have at it.  Be warned though, you may find yourself getting sleepy…very sleepy.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting of Bly Manor

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The Facts
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Synopsis: After an au pair’s tragic death, Henry Wingrave hires a young American nanny to care for his orphaned niece and nephew who reside at Bly Manor. But all is not as it seems at the manor, and centuries of dark secrets of love and loss are waiting to be unearthed because at Bly Manor, dead doesn’t mean gone.

Stars: Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel, Tahirah Sharif

Director: Mike Flanagan, Ciarán Foy, Axelle Carolyn, Liam Gavin, Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke

Running Length: 9 episodes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 2018, Netflix debuted writer/director Mike Flanagan’s clever reworking of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House and it became the type of buzzed about show every streaming service dreams of.  Viewers posted about its spine-tingling scares, marveled at its creativity in taking Jackson’s novel concerning a spooky haunted house and turning it into a family drama masquerading as a horror series, and began dissecting the intricate ways Flanagan (who directed each episode and had at least some part their conception) had made it all fit together.  More than anything, everyone wanted more.  The trouble was, the story had been told and Flanagan was a smart enough filmmaker to know that returning to make a continuation would be a disaster.

Instead, the pitch to Netflix was to step back and see this as an opportunity for each season to be an entirely new “Haunting of” and so Flanagan the producer was given the green light (and lots of green, I’m sure) to explore a new set of spirits.  Here we are, two years after Hill House closed its doors and we’re standing at the front steps of The Haunting of Bly Manor which has arrived just in time for a chilly October welcome.  Taking inspiration from the works of Henry James (and not just the author’s celebrated and oft-filmed “The Turn of the Screw as you may have originally thought) Flanagan’s involvement in the second season is limited to directing the first episode.  As was the original intent on Hill House, Flanagan then hands the reins of the remaining episodes to four different directors and one directing duo.  This creates an unavoidable discord from episode to episode, which unfortunately holds Bly Manor back from reaching the same level as its previous season.

By this point, I’ve seen enough of the work Flanagan has done (Oculus, Doctor Sleep, Gerald’s Game) to spot his style so the season opener starts strong out of the gate.  A framing device reveals a narrator I was greatly excited to see, but I’ve been asked not to reveal who it is.  Though we see them briefly on screen in the first and final episodes that take place in 2007, their main contribution comes from a voiceover that gives a storytelling structure to the episodes.  They take us back to 1987 in London when American Dani (Victoria Pedretti, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) is hired for an au pair position with barrister Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, Fire in the Sky) to care for his niece and nephew at Bly Manor, their home in the English countryside.  Dani seeks solace away from the busy city and a glowing eyed figure that haunts her reflection and hopes Bly Manor will be a good change of pace.

Arriving at the well-kept estate, she meets the other staff.  Gardner Jamie (Amelia Eve), Cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and housekeeper Hannah (T’Nia Miller) are all welcoming in their own way and instantly take a liking to the way she is able to communicate with the children.  Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) appear to be well-adjusted considering they’ve lost their parents and a previous caregiver in short order and under tragic circumstances but need Dani’s attention and even her discipline to remain that way.  They do have their own peculiarities though.  Flora’s dollhouse is a small scale replica of Bly Manor and is filled with crude dolls that bear an off-putting resemblance to members of the staff…and others.  The dolls seem to have a way of turning up in strange places and Flora is particular about who touches them and where they should stay at night.  Keeping Dani off balance becomes a game for Miles who appears to be bold with his actions one moment and less assured the next.

Over the episodes we come to learn more about Dani and what led to her leaving her home in the US and the secret she’s trying to hide from at Bly Manor.  Then there’s Wingrave’s former assistant Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Invisible Man) who was thought to have disappeared with a hefty sum of embezzled money but may have returned to the grounds for another sinister score.  We’ll also find out the full story about the children’s previous nanny (Tahirah Sharif) and how her time in the manor led to a destructive path.  More secrets are scattered throughout that I either won’t or can’t spoil for you at this time, but the fun in the show is gathering all the mysteries that Flanagan and his writers introduced and then waiting for the solutions to arrive.

The trouble with Bly Manor is, I think, that there are too many episodes.  Where Hill House made good use of its 10-episode arc, Bly Manor can’t exactly justify the nine full length chapters, many of which are excessively talky and meditative.  Audiences coming expecting another Hill House are bound to be disappointed with Bly Manor’s more arid setting and less intimate feel.  The writing also doesn’t feel as carefully crafted here and that’s a major problem for me.  You could tell that the script for Hill House was delivered nearly complete but I kept getting the impression Bly Manor began filming before the scripts for later episodes were done and that’s on account of those final episodes struggling without much plot mechanics to work with.  Hill House was such a thrill because it was solving its own mystery as it went along without you even realizing it…so that in the final episode it sort of went “Ta-Da!” and you suddenly realized what it had accomplished right under your nose.  In Bly Manor, the answers arrive without the same satisfaction.

Perhaps it’s because I didn’t warm to these characters in the same way I linked up with the family at the heart of Hill House.  Watching that show again in the days before taking on Bly Manor, I was struck not by how well it holds up on a second viewing (which it most definitely does) but how deeply emotional it is more than anything.  Though she’s playing another tortured soul, Pedretti manages to transform into a totally different person which is a complete 180 from the gentle Nell in Hill House. Aside from Miller’s uniformly excellent performance as the manor’s kindly housekeeper and, to a slightly lesser extent, Kohli’s cook working at Bly Manor while harboring dreams of opening his own restaurant, much of the cast stalls out when saddled with some of the expositional dialogue that starts to infiltrate the back episodes. when a lot of ground needs to be covered in short order.

Here’s the good news, though.  Forget about the long-winded speeches the writers start to favor near the end of the season.  Try to ignore the eyebrow raising accents from Americans going full community theater with their “veddy Breetish” patterns of speech. Pay no attention to the fact there’s a disappointing lack of ingenuity in the camera-work or hidden Easter eggs like last season which make future viewings more fun.  No, what you need to know is that with all the nitpicks I’ve picked at, I still think Bly Manor is well worth a visit.  One episode is downright great (sadly…or smartly, Netflix already asked me not to tell you which one) and there’s another focused on Miller that’s a definite highlight.  There are far too many shows that prove popular that don’t spend half the time this show does on how things fit together.  The production design is gorgeous, the ‘80s styles are chic but not gaudy or intrusive, and while I didn’t love the finale as much as I in particular should have, it’s a brave way to end things with a look toward a possible third residence to haunt.

Movie Review ~ Oculus

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you were to dismiss Oculus as another haunted house horror flick made on the cheap and released in theaters right about the time that audiences are clamoring for some springtime terror. Further, the trailer for Oculus sells the film as a scream fest surrounding an old mirror that has dark secrets. What Oculus isn’t, however, is your run-of-the-mill fright flick that saves its best scares for the final moments. This mirror is polished.

I’ll take a good scare any way I can get it…be it slow burn (Sinister), all out gore-fest (Cabin in the Woods), or failed attempt to cash in on a better concept (Silent House, The Apparition, etc) so I went into Oculus willing to receive it however it chose to present itself. I’ll admit at first I didn’t quite know what to make of the film as it bounced back and forth between a brother and sister exorcising some old demons and a flashback to 11 years earlier when the siblings dealt with some deadly family issues.

At the center of it all is a majestic mirror, said to be responsible for the death of close to 50 people since the 18th century and highly valuable. How a software designer (Rory Cochrane) had the cashola to purchase such a coveted antique is a plot point best filed away under “Don’t Think Too Hard” but it isn’t long before the past and present collide with some seriously spooky sequences where the line between reality and imagination gets hazy.

With an adequate amount of gore that plays second fiddle to bump in the night style scares, the film has the feeling of a sequel to The Amityville Horror (actually, an Amityville TV movie did deal with a haunted mirror now that I think about it) mixed in with dashes of fractured reality of the bloody Mirrors from 2008. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has thought out his film well, introducing not merely themes of post traumatic healing but of mental illness brought on by a tragedy. The film isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tie everything together but the effort is clear and purposeful.

Dealing with a small cast, the film could have been a pain to sit through had Flanagan not assembled such a strong group of actors. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) ably handle the adult siblings while Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) are impressive handling with their heavy lifting in flashbacks. The first shot of Gillan is her fire red ponytail swinging back and forth almost as if it’s possessed and both she and Thwaites work cohesively to build a believable bond. Cochrane and Katee Sackoff (Riddick) make good use of their slightly underwritten roles.

If there are cracks in Oculus, they are of the minor variety and truth being told I’m not sure if the film will hold up on future viewings. Though the ending rises to the occasion for making the goose bumps rise on your skin, a too short wrap-up left me feeling a little cold to the whole affair. Feeling just a tad long at 105 minutes, Flanagan working as his own edtior could have benefited from having someone else edit the film that was more objective to pacing.

More spooky than terrifying, Oculus earns points for restraint and solid performances. The scares are mostly satisfying and I appreciated that Flanagan developed material that felt fresh and not your average shriek-out.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oculus

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Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Release Date: April 11, 2014

Thoughts: First things first…I appreciate that this is truly a teaser trailer.  We all know how much I’m in favor of the less is more approach and while a longer version of this may be released before the film comes out in April, I have to say that this first look at another low-budget horror film from wunderkind producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity 4, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, The Purge, Lawless, Sinister, Lords of Salem) gets the job done.  That being said, these movies tend to open big (usually without advance screenings) and then sink like a stone once word of mouth makes its way around.  One can only hope that Oculus will wind up being more ambitious than the rest and strike gold not only in the box office but with critics desperate for a good scare.