Release: Friday, April 11, 2014
So there I am, in the middle of a crowded movie theater, sweaty with anticipation and feeling particularly crotchety with my ever-increasing skepticism towards what was about to be put before my eyes. Able to stuff those concerns down in the cup-holder, I instead choose to embrace this new opportunity to feel my thoughts getting all provoked and stuff. As the screen turns blue and the forthcoming previews start playing, a last-second thought crosses my mind.
“Wait, what am I about to watch again?”
Last year, entries like The Conjuring and You’re Next stepped up and did some significant remodeling to the house of horror, and while both movies weren’t without their critics, they both managed to sell tickets hand over fist — it all got to a point where the question was prompted as to whether the genre has potential for greater prominence in the mainstream film industry. An Oscar for a horror film? The horror! Both of the above-mentioned were much-talked about events almost on par with recent Marvel blockbusters, even as the calendar moved forward. Something about these releases in particular got people talking. In fact they were so good, they proved that my distrust of horror was really just a distrust in the horror that I had seen. My interest in shitting my pants in public places, apparently, still lied dormant.
There have likely been a number of original horror entries that have trickled their way out to the public since those two releases, but Oculus has emerged as the new buzzword in 2014 as far as creative ideas are concerned. As it turns out, this second film from Mike Flanagan has more in common with last year’s blockbuster horror films (if ever there were such a thing) than mere popularity. The Conjuring‘s emphasis on high-quality scares can’t be denied, while James Wan’s indie counterpart You’re Next has an obvious influence on the way Flanagan’s story refuses to bend to convention.
Two siblings, Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites), suffered a traumatic childhood when their parents were both brutally murdered in their home. Their father’s purchase of a large, decorative mirror seemed to be the cause of the problems and 11 years later, a fully-grown Kaylie is determined to return to the house and destroy the mirror once and for all, simultaneously proving that this object was responsible for the death of her parents, and exonerating her brother, who was wrongfully arrested on the scene on that fateful day. Tim finally is released from a psychiatric ward at the start of the film and Kaylie immediately proposes the idea to her emotional brother, who doesn’t share her enthusiasm in shattering the object at first. He mostly wants to forget about all of that.
Kaylie manages to eventually persuade Tim to not only help her destroy a mirror, but destroy a possessed mirror — the convincing about the second part takes Kaylie a little more effort. In the years since the murder, she has done extensive research and subsequently uncovered a horrifying truth about the mirror — IT’S ALIVE, and it wants to hurt people. Becoming obsessive, Kaylie sets up an elaborate system of cameras in the old office where her dad had fallen under its spell all those years ago, and then sets about trying to catch the mirror in the act of being a bastard. It could be an all-night process trying to capture the event on film for the world to see, so Kaylie’s come prepared with
food apples and bottled water.
As the night progresses, the atmosphere devolves into something akin to a nightmare, with a series of unexplained events unfolding one after the other. The longer they stay around the mirror, the more the siblings’ mental state deteriorates, with the mirror looking more and more to be the culprit. Details and memories from a haunted past come spilling forth as the two work together to try and stop history from repeating itself. With Tim recently being in a psychiatric hospital, he is inclined to deny everything that Kaylie is telling him about this mirror, including her back-up plan to destroy the thing. Even though she has a convincing rig already in place — including a ridiculous pendulum-like contraption involving a ship anchor and a pulley system — Tim believes his sister is unhealthy and is trying to rationalize her troubled past. This is something he believes he has learned to do in the hospital. Conversely, Kaylie doesn’t agree with the way Tim now thinks and believes him to be a completely different person since receiving ‘treatment.’
Their ideological conflict is only the beginning, however, as they are both confronted with frightening memories and even more disturbing hallucinations that leave them constantly disoriented both physically and with regards to their sense of time. Kaylie’s system of alarms going off every half hour or on the hour helps to combat some of this, but as the film develops even her tactful methods prove ineffective when reality starts blurring with the fantastical.
Oculus grabs the viewer by the (eye)balls and leads them on a psychological journey, one that is rendered both exciting and challenging to endure as an emphasis is placed once again on characters and exposition, rather than on bombarding the viewer with lots of poorly-lit action and demonic-looking CGI. There’s plenty of the latter to be had here, too, but ‘sci-fi/supernatural thriller’ isn’t where the film plans to stake its claim. It may be horrifying to watch, but it is far more fantastical and shares more qualities of a psychological thriller than that of a true horror entry. But this is all just semantics; no matter what technical label it receives, Oculus is a potent and highly original screenplay co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard.
However, Flanagan could also have been setting sights on staking claim in ‘Most Frustrating Movie’ territory, given the by-now infamous conclusion that he chose to write. While it won’t be necessary for me to ruin anything for you by giving away details, I need to make the comment that in order for the conclusion to work, you might want to make a mental note that this could very well be the first film in a franchise. . .or the first film of a two-part, much larger story, before sitting down to watch. Knowing this and being prepared for an abrupt conclusion will off-set much of the shock and surprise that could be experienced come the end of this, and even having such expectations won’t spoil any surprises along the way.
Slapping a big asterisk on Oculus‘ conclusion may not be something every theater attendee is going to be willing to do, but in order to protect one’s viewing experience as much as possible, this isn’t an unreasonable recommendation. And that’s all it is, too — a recommendation. Clever, beautifully-shot and well-acted, Oculus turns out to be a nifty surprise, and something I’m probably going to remember for awhile even though I instantly forgot it’s name before it started. . .
The film features a funhouse of effective scares, but perhaps the most effective horror moment of all is the revelation of a bloated Rory Cochrane in his role as Alan Russell, the father. Dazed & Confused fans, shield your eyes. That part is crazy.
Recommendation: Inventive, suspenseful and crafted with an unusual eye for detail, Oculus will work much better for some than it will for others. For those interested in something different than the typical haunted-house story, this is certainly one to consider, especially as this film in particular leaves the door open to future, and in my opinion, quite likely sequels. Also, Rory Cochrane. That is all.
Running Time: 104 mins.
Quoted: “Hello again. You must be hungry.”
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