OCULUS Review: Reflecting on the Past
The history of film is full of horror movies that are centered on something being haunted (or possessed or controlled) by an evil force. Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s an entire house, and sometimes it’s an object. Objects Of Evil include, but certainly aren’t limited to, specific rooms in a house (the attic, the basement, a closet), dolls, books, televisions, cars, and so on. My favorite horror film Object Of Evil is the mirror.
I like the mirror as the Object Of Evil (either as a possessed object or as a portal to hell and other such nasty places) because of what a mirror represents to us in our everyday lives. For many, a mirror is an object of vanity. Even people who are not narcissists at least use mirrors to make sure they look okay. Evil never looks okay and never wants to look okay, so the object that gives someone a little self-confidence or a little reassurance is, in a horror movie, the antithesis of that. For others, a mirror is an object of self-loathing. Many people have a poor body image or are unhappy with some physical aspect or attribute of themselves. Evil feeds on unhappiness.
Ultimately, mirrors are a reflection of the people who look in them – happy or sad, content or dissatisfied, proud or disappointed. So when an evil force manifests itself in or via something that is a reflection of the person looking in it, is that evil force really an evil force, or the true nature of the person looking into it?
You see now why I like mirrors in horror films. It’s just one reason why I like Oculus.
A decade ago, youngsters Kaylie and Tim Russell (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) suffered the ultimate childhood loss when their parents, Alan and Marie (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), were murdered in their house. The children were witnesses. In the aftermath, Tim was institutionalized while Kaylie went through the foster home system.
Ten years later, newly-minted adult Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has been given a clean bill of mental health by his doctors and he is discharged from the hospital. Awaiting him is his now-23-year-old sister (Karen Gillan). No sooner is Tim out of the hospital, Kaylie is holding him to their lofty childhood promise that they would never forget what happened when they were kids: that an evil spirit was the cause of their parents’ death, and that that evil spirit manifested itself through an antique mirror that their father had bought just weeks before the tragedy.
Despite adult Kaylie’s acquisition of the mirror; despite her incredibly thorough research on the piece and the tragedy that befell its previous owners; and despite her Ghostbusters-for-the-21st-century set-up in their old house (which again contains the mirror placed in the same spot as when they were kids), Tim is incredulous, offering arguments both scientific and logical against the notion of evil spirits. But when things start to happen that first night in the house, Tim wonders if his logical memory is actually deceiving him.
Calling Oculus a horror movie feels like one of those instances where you need to assign it a primary genre in the interest of putting it in the most fitting section of the video store. Yes, it is a horror film first, and a very good one, although it’s mostly the creepy kind of horror. Granted, it has its startling moments and bloody moments, but the creep factor outranks the others, both visually and by way of the story itself.
Beyond the horror aspect of the film, it has an efficient procedural component. Kaylie, having had a decade to plan how she would lure and combat the evil spirit she believes possesses the mirror, has done exhaustive research on the previous owners and presents their stories to her brother like a prosecutor building a case against an evil defendant. She also takes numerous precautionary measures to protect herself and her brother, as well as some tactical steps to understand the spirit’s range and location. Almost all of it is handled – and well – in one large scene. To have tried to communicate that much detail into the other activities going on would have been clumsy and would have hindered the rest of the story.
The quality writing from director/writer/editor Mike Flanagan and co-screenwriter Jeff Howard continues as it weaves an intellectual thread into the film in the form of a debate between the siblings about the spirit world vs. the real world which, when you think about it, essentially represents a debate about faith vs. science. The exchange is passionate and never really resolved (although, because it’s a horror movie, of course Kaylie wins the debate).
But the best aspect of the film is how it plays like a thriller. Unlike other horror films, where you already know the past when the present begins, this film tells you the siblings’ stories in parallel – past and present. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to when the siblings were kids. This is where Flanagan takes off his “good director” and “very good writer” hats and puts on his “excellent editor” hat. The transitions from past to present and back again are seamless and coherent, and as the film gains momentum and a torrent of action is unleashed in the third act, Flanagan maintains the parallel storytelling style, at times even overlapping the two stories as if they are happening simultaneously. This is difficult to pull off and Flanagan does it masterfully.
Among the players, everyone is perfectly fine, with Cochrane portraying quite well the unravelling father. But it’s Gillan who is the star of the film and a standout by a mile. Whether as preacher or prosecutor, sister or ghost hunter, woman-in-charge or damsel-in-distress, or even some combination of those, she delivers. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the camera loves her (even with a mouthful of blood). Cinematographer Michael Fimognari recognizes this and capitalizes on it, lighting her perfectly but never exploiting her. She is no bubble-headed Scream Queen, but rather a fully realized female lead. This acting strength, combined with her popularity from her stint on TV’s Doctor Who (as Amy Pond) and her upcoming role in Guardians of the Galaxy (of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), positions Gillan to take her career to the next level.
Throw in a very good, seat-rumbling score from The Newton Brothers, as well as one of the best endings to a horror film I’ve seen, and you have Oculus: a good scare, a great thrill, and the horror film to beat in 2014.