Thursday, May 8, 2014

Movie Curiosities Reviews: Oculus


The phenomenon of groupthink comes part and parcel with seeing movies in a theater, but it's especially prominent with comedies and horror films. No matter how crappy a joke may be, or how lame a jump scare is, there will always be at least a handful of mouth-breathers who will dramatically react to everything on the screen. And through some weird glitch in the human condition, the happiness of the lowest common denominator spreads like a plague throughout the theater. Before the first act is through, the bar has been subconsciously lowered to where everyone's laughing at bodily fluids and terrified of the door that moved on its own. On the one hand, this adds a layer of enjoyment to a movie that could never be duplicated at home. On the other hand, it tends to make movies seem way better than they really are.

This is why I'm grateful that I couldn't get around to seeing Oculus until a Tuesday afternoon a month after its initial release. I got the theater all to myself, free to judge the movie without any screams or commentary from the rest of the peanut gallery. And I had a really good time.

Oculus comes to us by way of writer/editor/director Mike Flanagan, here adapting his own short film, titled " Oculus: Chapter 3 -- The Man with the Plan." Chapters 1 and 2 do not exist. The idea was to make a nine-part anthology series of short films, all connected by the haunted Lasser glass. For budgetary reasons, Chapter 3 was the first one produced.

The Lasser glass is an antique mirror with a very unusual history. No one knows how or where it was made, and all of its owners over the past few centuries have died under rather unusual circumstances. I have no idea how such a mirror could have been purchased by a typical middle-class family, but that's what happened.
Anyway, this story follows two separate stories running in parallel along two separate timelines. In the first story, we meet the Russell family as they move into their new home with a newly-purchased antique mirror in tow. Shortly after, the daughter of the family was (allegedly) attacked by her mother, who was then (allegedly) killed by her husband, who was then (allegedly) shot by his son, who was then promptly locked up in a mental institution.

The second story begins when Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released on his 21st birthday after spending the past eleven years making his peace with what happened. But Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) has spent that decade doing research on the Lasser glass and waiting for her brother to get freed. She's also been working for a high-end auctioneering company, looking for the Lasser glass while plotting ways to prove its responsibility for her own family tragedy and so many others before it.

Yes, it's Kaylie who decides to mess with the supernatural artifact even though she knows damn well that it's dangerous. Bear in mind, this makes the second time that this family made a conscious decision to take possession of this mirror with such a long and miserable history behind it. I realize that horror films can't work unless someone is impossibly stupid and/or unlucky, but our cup is running over in this case.

That said, Kaylie at least has the good sense to keep a number of safeguards in place. She's clearly put a lot of effort into thinking about camera placements, kill switches, independent power sources, supplies of food and water, and other means to experiment on the mirror with some modicum of protection. However, that still doesn't excuse her cockamamie scheme to hole up in her childhood home with her brother and the accursed mirror. At the very least, she might have tried to bring in an independent third party. Preferably someone with medical training. Just saying.

Getting back to the Lasser glass, it's never explicitly spelled out precisely how the mirror works or even if it works at all. You see -- as Tim explains after a decade in therapy -- it's entirely possible that the previous Lasser-related deaths are mere coincidences and there's a rational explanation for everything that happened way back when. He of course fails to convince Kaylie, who seems to think that the mirror convinces victims to do terrible things by way of hallucinations and false memories. The mirror works through perception, which is a huge theme of the movie.

Tim and Kaylie prove to be highly unreliable narrators. Throughout the plot (especially early on), they question whether their memories could be affected by guilt, time, sleep deprivation, hereditary madness, or any number of other factors. There's also the fact that on paper, their parents' actions could just as easily be the product of an extramarital affair or a terrible mental illness. Also, Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) has a nasty habit of chewing his nails, which might explain why they tend to bleed so often. And Marie Russell (Katee Sackhoff, representing PDX!) is pretty much always seen with a wine glass in hand, so let's add alcoholism to the list as well.


Basically, we never have any idea how much of the threat is real or whether the characters are ever really safe. For all we know, this could all be entirely in their heads. But as anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology would know, just because something's entirely in your head doesn't mean it can't hurt you.

This movie is fascinating in that the victims are forced to become their own slashers without even realizing it. Stripped of their ability to know for a fact what's right in front of their faces, they are completely at the mercy of their own swelling insanity and mistrust. The characters can be manipulated into doing anything, potentially lashing out in violence for their own safety. It can also present the characters with two mutually exclusive events happening at the same time, which is a horrible mindfuck in execution.


The concept of inflicting madness also solves a lot of classic plot holes in terrifying ways. They could try calling for help, but how would they know there's another person on the line? They could try leaving the house, but what if they only think they've left the front door? They can try smashing the mirror, but they'll only be striking a blank wall, if that. And yes, there are a whole bunch of cameras set up, but only the physical tape copies will be left as reliable evidence. Anything seen on the monitors and viewfinders, and whatever passes through the optic nerve, could only be a passing mirage.

(Side note: I still maintain that we need a moratorium on found-footage movies, and there's no way a found-footage approach would work for a concept so rooted in perceptions and memories as this one. Still, I'd be very interested to see a kind of "highlight reel" to show what Kaylie's cameras picked up. Could be a neat little look at the "real" version of what happened. A special feature for the DVD, perhaps?)

Moving on, I've said before how the film explores two storylines running parallel in separate timelines. There's the past storyline, to show how Alan and Marie Russell died, and the present storyline, to foreshadow the other storyline while continuing the adventures of Tim and Kaylie Russell. Both have their fill of scares and surprises, until the third act comes along. In the last third of this film, Tim and Kaylie aren't just remembering what happened 11 years ago, they're flashing back to that fateful night. They see themselves as they were that night, they act as they did that night, and they see their parents as they were just before their murder. On a few occasions, they even see their parents as undead spectres.

At first, it was a question of what's paranormal vs. what's mundane. Then it added the question of what's real and what isn't. Then it added the question of what's past vs. what's present. By the time the storylines merge, it becomes completely impossible to tell what's really happening. It's tempting to hold this against the movie, since incomprehensible plotting with ineffectual protagonists generally don't make for good storytelling. Then again, there's a certain kind of terror in knowing that something awful is going to happen and the characters are powerless to stop it. Haunted mirror or no, the characters' heads are playing twisted games with each other and there's nothing left to do but see where it all ends up.

I'll put it this way: At first, I thought the plot was like a train gone off the rails. In truth, the plot was more like a train without any brakes, speeding relentlessly toward an inevitable and violent conclusion.
With all of that said, I'm sad to say that the quality of this cast is split right down between the gender line. Karen Gillan does a remarkable job as an intelligent woman blinded by her need for closure, and Annalise Basso (as the young Kaylie) surely has a marvelous future ahead of her. Major kudos are also due to Katee Sackhoff. She plays a loving mother who slowly turns into a horrific monster, and every step of the transition works. The same cannot be said of her on-screen husband, unfortunately.

If you'll pardon the comparison, Rory Cochrane faces the same problem that Jack Nicholson did in The Shining. Both characters were supposed to be loving family men who slowly turned into homicidal psychopaths, and both characters were cast with actors who looked like maniacs right out of the gate. Cochrane is clearly trying, bless his heart, but one look at him and you know he's going to be trouble. I'm also sorry to say that Garrett Ryan (who plays Young Tim) keeps getting acted off the screen by his castmates, and Brenton Thwaites (through no fault of his own) suffers an unfortunately severe case of backpfeifengesicht.



By far the most talented male associated with this picture is Mike Flanagan. This is clearly a man who saw the recent successes of Insidious and The Conjuring and learned all the right lessons from them. The editing is tight, the lighting is fantastic, the score is just right, and the fake-outs are deftly used. Everything is in place to make sure that the scares land with maximum impact, though it certainly helps that the terror is more psychological in nature by nature of the central concept.


Though Oculus has some flaws in casting and the third act comes perilously close to spiraling out of control, it's still a damn scary film. Perhaps more importantly, it's a surprisingly intellectual film with some very novel themes about perception, paranoia, and insanity. It's not often that I say this about a horror film, but given how this film worked out and Flanagan's reported plans for another eight stories, I genuinely hope to see where this franchise goes. In the meantime, this one comes gladly recommended.