Oddity Turns a Cabinet of Curiosities Into One of the Scariest Movies of the Year

Stay away from the Wooden Man...

Keeper Pictures
Inverse Reviews

Budding horror filmmaker Damian McCarthy is quietly assembling a rich cinematic universe over on Shudder. McCarthy’s 2021 feature debut Caveat stunned audiences with its beguiling approach, cementing a love-it-or-hate-it style that many critics seemed to adore. His follow-up Oddity doesn’t break form, and smuggles in fan-favorite artifacts as not-so-hidden cameos that link back to McCarthy’s prior works. Caveat fans will notice the decrepit toy bunny sitting in a creepy antique shop, while one-eyed Olin Boole (played by Tadhg Murphy) has his origin explained in McCarthy's black-and-white short How Olin Lost His Eye. It’s a nifty continuity that brings even more allure to the filmmaker’s macabre fantasy world, making Oddity worth more than its plunge into a melancholic story about slain wives, lost sisters, and a distressing mannequin assembled from wood.

Carolyn Bracken stars as both Darcy and Dani, blood relatives never on screen at the same time. Dani is the deceased spouse of Dr. Ted Timmis (Gwilym Lee), murdered in her own Irish home by the accused, Olin Boole. Darcy is Dani’s blind white-haired sister, the owner of Odello’s Oddities and a medium who can reveal stashed-way memories by touching personal belongings. Ted leaves Darcy Olin’s fragile fake eye as a token and invites Darcy over on the one-year anniversary of Dani’s passing. The only problem is Ted forgets his extended hospitality, leaving his new medical sales agent girlfriend Yana (Caroline Menton) to babysit Darcy and an eerie lifesize wooden dummy when she appears with the eccentric gift to spend the night.

There’s something so delicately Flanaganian about Oddity, whether that’s ghostly Haunting of Hill House imagery or mischievous Fall of the House of Usher likened characters. McCarthy is a manipulator of moods who drenches his film’s nooks and crannies with exceptional amounts of dread. Whereas Caveat plays more avante-garde, Oddity feasts upon gloomy genre trappings as superficial as a woman home alone after dark. McCarthy’s odes to Mike Flanagan feature heavily as Ted and Darcy banter about Dani’s untimely death, morphing into distrust, only to have supernatural appearances become warnings instead of aggression. There’s a prevalent spirituality that embraces unknowns instead of fears them, elevating dramatic tension with more than generic jump scares.

Darcy’s “Wooden Man,” a family heirloom shipped to Ted’s estate in a crate that might as well be marked “Caution: Freaky Stuff Inside,” steals the spotlight as an instantly distrustful prop. Inside its head holes are offerings of blood and hair — it’s clear that Darcy’s shipped some backup contingency or ritualistic protector. How McCarthy uses the Wooden Man is a delight, as it shifts positions and poses whenever Yana turns her back. The way it sits at Ted’s dining room table, mouth agape with an angry expression, is an artfully unsettling picture of Geppetto’s worst nightmare. Cinematographer Colm Hogan expertly blocks the Wooden Man out of sight to avoid numbing overexposure, generating hype and paranoia for the statue’s reveals based solely on nervous anticipation. Bracken’s energy as Darcy when around the Wooden Man helps make him feel alive or at least always watching, as the living embodiment of dark arts distilled into a milky-eyed believer.

It’s with surprising simplicity how McCarthy’s ghost story keeps Oddity acerbic and suspenseful, even when it relies on situational acceptance that some viewers may struggle to grasp. Ted’s middle-of-nowhere estate is a picturesque house for hauntings, an open-concept and dimly-lit countryside manor with a raised second-floor walkway steeped in shadows. With how its scares are shot and how its apparitions reveal themselves with gray-dabbed makeup effects, McCarthy hits upon Flanagan’s chilling rendition of grief-laden and emotionally raw horror storytelling that still brings a few standout shocks. There’s nothing especially inventive in the film’s approach to horror pacing or formulas, which isn’t always the film’s best friend, but it’s effective nonetheless. McCarthy understands the visual composition of a good scare and how far a disturbing mascot like the Wooden Man can go even when plotting steps out of line. Oddity is a delectably dreary little chamber piece that embraces despicable events with a sharp, independent perspective that maximizes its spotlight moments, making the most of a made-for-horror locale and heavy-footed carved figure.

Bracken dazzles as suspiciously connected sisters who share a bond beyond this world. The Great’s Gwilym Lee gives Bracken ample insincerity to play off of as a workaholic physician with a curiously avoidant disposition. Still, Bracken makes the most of McCarthy's fabled and wistful approach to horror. Darcy’s interactions with Ted and Yana start sympathetically, as a sibling grieving her lost half, but then Bracken begins to embellish Darcy’s otherworldly abilities. Oddity charts thunderous interactions as first Dani and Olin, then Darcy and Yana, try to suss one another’s presence within Ted’s deceptively comfortable abode. As Darcy's interrupting presence tests Ted’s and Yana’s nerves, Bracken displays an impressive mix of coyness and subtle dominance, turning Darcy’s unannounced visit into a ghoulish retelling of Dani’s fate.

Oddity is McCarthy’s more “mainstream” release compared to Caveat. The filmmaker only needs a few hospital rooms, Ireland’s residential privacy, and his wooden friend to sell more frightening imagery than theatrical releases with quadruple the budget. McCarthy displays a mature understanding of the horror genre as a whole, not just loud noises and cheap thrills. Oddity is a cryptic, chilling, and deathly atmospheric take on terrors surfaced by experienced trauma that helps establish McCarthy’s directorial voice above generic indie horror releases that don’t have a second gear. Maybe the paths Oddity takes to reach its climactic glory could use some tweaks, but as a vision of folkloric fear and wolves in sheep’s clothing, this might be one of Shudder’s spookiest titles to release this year.

Oddity premiered March 8 at SXSW 2024. It will be available to stream on Shudder in the U.S. this summer.

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