Oculus

by Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson

EXPECTATIONS: Writer/director Mike Flanagan's last film, Absentia, was more promise than delivery, hamstrung by a $70,000 budget and a reach that exceeded its grasp. As long as Oculus, with its $5 million budget and a monster built from memories of small-town antiques stores, doesn't turn into Death Mirror: The Mirror That Eats, it'll do just fine.

REALITY: Oculus begins with a flashback sequence in which Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) kills his 13-year-old self (Garrett Ryan). He describes some of this in flashback (minus, of course, the part where he's holding a gun to Tim-as-a-child's head) to his therapist, conveying his breakthrough in an attempt to secure his own release from the facility to which he was committed after murdering his parents, Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and Alan (Rory Cochrane). First, we think he's bullshitting, saying whatever he needs to get out of a mental institution before he turns 30. Later, as his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), asserts, we'll wonder if his time at the institution screwed him up worse. And at some point, you might wonder if an evil, reality-bending mirror (A Mirror) somehow made this impossible paradox possible. Could an accursed object toss your adult self back in time and trick you into killing you-as-a-child?

This is just like when I look in the mirror every morning. Apart from the smile.The point is, all bets are off in Oculus, which gleefully violates some fundamental rules of horror. For your audience to invest itself in a fantastical situation without walking away feeling cheated, you must establish some rules for the premise. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies and shape shifting aliens operate within set limits that human protagonists must exploit if they're gonna make it out alive. The world you create must operate on some kind of internal logic and the narrative POV should be clear, as in films like Black Swan and Repulsion, in which we see the world through the eyes of characters who are gradually going insane, so when arms start coming through the walls and ballerinas grow feathers, we can at least say, "Yeah, that makes sense because we're joining her on a descent into madness."

Ah, but here is a film in which a malevolent mirror keeps topping itself, flashbacks merge with hallucinations as two time periods collide in a stew of temporal chaos, and we see events both subjectively, from four different vantage points, and objectively, with few cinematic clues to demarcate the perspectives. In one sequence, we think we're seeing something from Kaylie's perspective. Then we're sure we're seeing it from an objective perspective. But, nope. We're seeing it from Tim's perspective. And, yet, all of this is grounded in a screenplay that deals in realistic themes: domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, and familial patterns of mental instability. It's entirely possible that Oculus presents the shared delusion of two truly disturbed siblings - unlikely, but possible. Absentia also blurred the realistic (addiction and recovery) with the supernatural (a tunnel that seems to swallow people whole), and despite some stilted acting, Oculus delivers on that film's promise.

Flanagan uses his irreverence for the rules of horror to great effect, cleverly aligning us with his protagonists by tasking us with discerning what's real and what isn't while Kaylie and Tim attempt to do the same. Kaylie, who's spent the previous 13 years concocting a plan to restore the family name by proving the mirror's malevolence, appears to have the upper hand. She recites a history of the mirror's victims: a woman who managed to die of dehydration in a full bathtub, another woman who thought she was putting her children to bed even as she drowned them. Then, she recites a list of her precautions: four egg timers, each on a different cycle, to ensure Kaylie and Tim attend to their basic needs; her fiancée will call once every hour; and a "kill switch," a stack of weights that will swing from the ceiling and smash the mirror if she doesn't reset yet another timer. And there's something about independent power grids, but I'm not sure that would stop a mirror whose capabilities would make H.P. Lovecraft rethink Cthulhu's limitations. Tim, whose years of therapy have finally convinced him that the haunted mirror was really a mechanism for him to avoid murdering his parents, is skeptical. But then & why did all of the Russells' plants die? What happened to the family dog? How did a woman they saw as children move so freely about their dad's office without ever emerging?

Don't be alarmed, but I think the real threat is behind you.

On one level, these are all tactics to short-circuit any elements that would break an audience's verisimilitude. On a deeper, smarter level Oculus is striking at themes the horror genre has moved away from: ancient evils that are unknown and unknowable. As a society, we've grown increasingly more rational, less superstitious, requiring our evils to be personified and explicable, so much so that the classic ghost story is in constant need of reinvention (that's where the excellent Insidious comes in). If the monster's not a psychopath - and most of them are, these days - we need it to be a stock monster or Satan, that old standby. We need it to harbor human motives. The ghost seeks resolution, just as the vampire seeks sustenance, aliens seek real estate, Satan seeks chaos and Kimye seeks attention. Now imagine you're a sentient mirror with a wicked mean streak. What is your function? From where do you derive the instinct for self-preservation? Why do you kill? For that matter, why do you drive your victims insane before you kill them? In Oculus, those questions are irrelevant - the answers, nonexistent.

I'm sure that logic has been used to describe a movie as bad, but Oculus marks a second coming of cosmic horror, in which protagonists must claw through layers of reality, fighting madness every step of the way as they confront a universe that's incomprehensible and malignant, a universe that could engender evil objects and evil parents and rig the game against children for whom the horrors are indistinguishable. That's not to say Oculus isn't a good time at the movies. Despite the subject matter, this functions as both a string of cinematic magic tricks, punctuated by genuinely involving dialogue in which Tim repeatedly tells Kaylie she needs therapy while Kaylie tells Tim he's had too much of it, and a puzzle film that will please anyone who fondly remembers the trippier episodes of House and the last 90 minutes of Inception. I'm rarely excited by the prospect of sequels the minute the credits roll, but Flanagan has crafted such a fertile premise from a subgenre so rarely explored by mainstream filmmakers, it would be a shame if we couldn't follow this mirror through more of its wacky plant-killing adventures.

Acting5/10
Cinematography9/10
APPLES!10/10
Fuckin' wit' Conventions10/10
Dat Premise Doe11/10
Overall45/50

MINORITY REPORT: A magic mirror that may or may not either send you back in time or make you mad enough to believe that it can is a pretty crazy antagonist for a horror movie, I'll admit. That's on a whole other level. Not quite as good in execution as a space alien disguised as Scarlett Johansson, but conceptually it's so far out there it might as well be from another planet anyway. - Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

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– Martin "Vargo" Schneider (@SchneidRemarks)

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