Directed by Mike Flanagan
Whoa, wait, what? A deeply-moving examination of childhood abuse and trauma masquerading as a half-wit Death Bed remake? Not what I expected.
Oculus is a feature-length adaptation of a award-winning short released in 2005. Sadly, I haven't seen the short, so cannot compare it in this review, but suffice to say it was compelling enough that studios tried for years to pick it up as a "found-footage" picture. Flanagan refused these attempts, and finally agreed to make Oculus on the express condition that it NOT be found-footage. During the scripting process, they expanded the original premise of the short by intertwining storylines of the past with the present.
But this isn't just a mish-mash of flashbacks. Oculus tells the tale of a supernatural, EVIL mirror that has the power to warp reality around it. It kills houseplants, absorbs dogs, and causes intensely realistic hallucinations, driving its human victims to their deaths! As the movie unwinds, the boundaries between memory and illusion become increasingly blurred until they rip apart altogether.
The story goes that a brother and sister have finally returned to their childhood home: a house of horrors where both their parents died. Tim has recently been released from a mental institution. Kaylie has made her way past the trauma on her own, landing a job as an antiques dealer. Kaylie convinces Tim back to the house because she's located the EVIL mirror that she blames for her parents' descent into insanity and their deaths. Kaylie intends to document the mirror's powers, and then destroy it.
Tim is skeptical, until strange things begin to happen. And as we are led down the twisting path of the last innocent days of Kaylie and Tim's childhood, we begin to see why Tim needed to be in an institution, and why Kaylie is so very... intense.
Of course there are ghosts. Booooooo. But I'll explain why this is a boo in a bit.
Further, as an individual who suffers frequently from severe nightmares, hallucinations, and hideous intrusive thoughts, it was really awesome to have a movie I could point at and exclaim "Look! See when she bites that lightbulb! It's not real, but it might as well be. That's what it's like! That's why X bothers me so much..."
Anyways, I really liked and identified with Kaylie. She's a great character because her intelligence, resourcefulness, and determination are not undercut by her mental frailty. Rather, her unbalanced mind renders her complex and flawed in a way that is empathy-inducing. A way that would only make her look foolish to the most callous and under-developed adolescent.
Tim is the same way. His skepticism is level-headed yet born out of a deep sense of self-preservation. As such, Oculus accomplishes something to be pleased about: characters that are flawed and fearful for a good reason, not some loaded-in stupidity that's requisite for the genre tropes and cliches to go off. Their childhood was deeply traumatic, and that's bound to make people messed up. Thus, by actually giving us characters instead of cardboard dolls, the audience is able to empathize and relate to them. Then, the trouble they get into is believable. And then, Boom: Horror that works. Crazy, huh?
|Watch out: we're about to dive deep.|
This gets us to the heart of Oculus: how to cope with trauma. Frequently in the beginning of the movie, Tim admonishes Kaylie for believing that the mirror is EVIL. He claims that this is just an elaborate delusion she's constructed to cope with the inconceivable horrors of their past. Memories are unreliable and fluid, and mysteries muddied by time can be easily explained. The dog had Parvo, dad was just having an affair, etc. etc.
We see how stubborn Kaylie is in response. How doggedly she chases an explanation that will make her mom and dad and brother Good People, people who were Not Responsible. She's nestled deep into her obsessive insanity because believing in an EVIL MIRROR is easier and better than believing in the mental illness and abusiveness of her parents. It's easier than facing the fact that her brother became a killer at 10 years old.
These threads: the unreliability of memory and the rationalizations we weave to cope with the unspeakable, are then mixed into an even nastier snarl with PTSD-type flashbacks and triggerings. Time may have allowed Kaylie the ability to function in the world, but as the movie goes on, a very true thing becomes patently clear: somewhere on the inside there is still a terrified, frustrated, overwhelmed young girl. There's a part of Kaylie that will always be that girl, fighting not to be afraid of the people she ought to trust most. The mirror merely brings that piece to the surface. And then when we consider how identity over time is not so linear and solid as we like to believe, and how our conceptions about our memories shape who we are, and you get quite the tangled web.
Speaking of tangled webs, Oculus accomplishes a somewhat impressive feat by keeping its shit straight. I'm sure there are plenty of loopholes and details that people might point out as being flaws (while missing the point that flaws in recollection are exactly what the movie is ABOUT), but all things considered, this movie does an amazing job of minding its p's and q's. Transitioning cleanly between the present, the actual past, hallucinations in the present, memories, and hallucinations designed to look like memories, Flanagan and his team pulled off a plot-line circuitous enough to make Christopher Nolan proud.
|My gum disease is sooooooo spooooooopy! Be Spooped!|
On to the Bad Parts: those useless spoopy ghosts.
Sadly, though, because it works so hard to make the EVIL MIRROR real, and the SPOOPY GHOSTS real, it completely undermines what is truly horrifying and resonant about the film. What is more disturbing than not being able to trust your own mind? Ladies with cataracts and bad teeth? I mean, if we have a movie with two deeply scarred young people, returning to the location where all their horrors happen, it's bound to trigger all sorts of things inside them, resulting in a mind-breaking descent into madness. To insist on the device of a haunted mirror is tiresome and juvenile.
And... I'm not even going to go into how predictable and useless the ending is. Ugh.
However, I don't particularly blame the film-makers for this as much as I blame the market. A lot of horror is unbelievably terrible these days because it's what sells. Honestly, I'm impressed that Oculus even got made, and was popular enough to get, what, two sequels picked up? So, I understand why they shoe-horned stupid ghosts in, I just whole-heartedly believe it would have been a magnificent movie without them. The kind of movie that could be like a little baby sister to The Shining.
Speaking of The Shining, though, I'd also like to point out that the way Oculus is made leaves a little to be desired. While the film-making was clean and the editing very polished (as stated above), I would have liked a bit more in the way of directorial and aesthetic flair. The movie is very competently shot, and a portion of me wants to argue that any more visual stylization would distract from the plot, but... there's a but. Atmosphere is frequently built via literal darkness more than shot-framing, and the palette of color and texture could have been more vivid for my tastes (this is a movie about insanity, afterall- we can use shades other than white, bright red, dusty ochre, and black). As a result, I often felt like Oculus was an extremely well-planned film shot by someone fresh out of school, who hasn't yet had a chance to develop their personal visual style. I would love to see this redone, sans the conceit of the mirror being actually EVIL, and with a bit more verve. I think what I want is The Shining.
In short, Oculus definitely has its problems. It's not a movie that knocks it out of the park. But, it's got a lot of good stuff hidden away inside its shell. In other words, Oculus understands the jungle it's in, and has spent a lot of time camouflaging itself as a SuperSpoopyGhostMovie, so that it can continue to feed and lay its eggs in peace. This makes me happy in a strange way. Instead of disappointment, I see something hopeful. That there are people out there capable of making good, compelling, useful horror, even if they have to frost it with dumbness for now.