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‘Oddity’ Review: Ghostly Home Invader Ransacks a Junk Drawer of Terror Treasures for Shudder

From pressed pennies to serial killer trophies, collections come in all shapes and sizes. Special assortments do not have to be uniform, nor does their common trait need to be immediately apparent. Just take the menagerie of artifacts in the basement from “Cabin in the Woods” or the museum of haunted items central to “The Conjuring” series. In fact, some of the best collections are really puzzles holding the solutions to even more arcane mysteries.

Such is the case with “Oddity,” writer/director Damian Mc Carthy’s second feature film, which premiered at SXSW as part of festival’s midnight lineup on March 8. Featuring a steely blind psychic (Carolyn Bracken) as its supernatural star and a menacing wooden mannequin as its scary centerpiece, this mostly single-location thriller is made in an almost-but-not-quite vaudevillian style that feels spiritually akin to “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.” It’s a richly imagined three-ring circus of genre concepts — somersaulting between chilly Irish folktale, winking creature feature, bare-bones home invasion horror, affectionate “Needful Things” homage, and a tense but darkly funny drama between grieving in-laws. (Fair warning: It also has the best jump-scare this critic has seen in some time.)

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At the start of the Shudder original, the charming and gentile Dani (also Bracken) is working on a massive estate renovation in the Irish countryside. Talking on the phone with her immediately off-putting husband Ted (Gwilym Lee), the handy brunette photographer battles a lack of cell reception and her spouse’s generalized emotional detachment before retiring to an ethereally lit yellow tent set up inside an otherwise empty living room. Soon, Dani finds a stranger (Tadgh Murphy) calling outside. The man claims someone else has just broken into Dani’s house, but he, a frantic drifter with one glass eye, is there to protect her.

“If I open the door,” Dani asks, in a sobering bit of scripting, “what will you do?”

To free Bracken up for her dazzling double-duty performance as Dani’s twin sister Darcy, Mc Carthy is quick to dispatch his film’s first victim. The circumstances of Dani’s death are hazy, but we know the man she met that night has since died in prison because of what the courts believe he did to her. Fast forward to Ted and Darcy lamenting their lost loved one. They’re seated in Darcy’s consignment shop, where the medium collects and sells an array of possessed, cursed, and otherwise psychically fraught things. A self-professed man of science, Ted doesn’t think twice before handing over that glass eye to his dead wife’s surviving half.

“Oddity” follows Darcy’s return to the scene of the crime, where she presents as a formidable opponent to Ted’s opportunistic new girlfriend Yana (Caroline Menton). The slippery paranormal detective, armed with new insights thanks to that ocular prosthesis, slinks onto the property to sus out what really happened to Dani. To aid in her investigation, Darcy has brought along a massive wooden man. He’s stuck in a perpetual scream with a set of holes in his head like a bowling ball, and somehow not the scariest visage Mc Carthy’s twisted sophomore effort will make you face. “Art,” Darcy says before seating the hulking piece of lumber at the kitchen table.

Theoretically matching all the criteria needed for a feminist revenge flick, this junk drawer of eerie entertainments seems at first like an anxious collage of overly complicated and campy concepts. Bracken does remarkably well with making her character’s expository monologues compelling; they demand a deadpan delivery that makes much of Darcy’s time on screen feel like a colorized “Twilight Zone” episode turned “X-Files” spinoff in a good way. And while this film is all but certain to go down in critical memory as some kind of riff on a demented Pinocchio, Mc Carthy treats that inevitably with a wry humor that will give you a strange sense of warmth toward the mahogany monster. (Could this be the film that makes you whisper “wooden boy” with the quiet and dreamy affection an entertainment reporter once said “sweeeeateeeer” at the sight of Chris Evans in cable knit for “Knives Out”?)

Sure, you’ll have to withstand a vapid pharmaceutical rep asking a blind woman if she has “seen” her keys. (It’s an offbeat moment that would work as a joke if the script didn’t try it twice back to back.) And yes, the plot does have an otherworldly kicker that veers just a smidge too close to “Goosebumps” territory. (You’ll know it when you see it, and it’s wearing a hat.) Not to mention, Menton and Lee seriously struggle to make their solo scenes work for a reason that’s hard to pin down. (Were they… not… in the same room?)

Still, “Oddity” delivers a brilliant, bespoke, and tightly entertaining string of ideas that work stronger as a collection — with even these missteps feeling like they branch from a unified center. Similar to Mc Carthy’s earlier “Caveat,” this 98-minute treat demands to be reassessed a second time. Thank the wooden boy it’s coming to streaming: a triumphant addition to the director’s growing filmography and a standout in Shudder’s carousel of kick-ass ghost stories.

Grade: B+

“Oddity” premiered at SXSW 2024. It’s expected to stream via Shudder in summer 2024.

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