Monday, June 2, 2014

Oculus (2014) : What You See Isn't Always What You Get

A few years ago when I saw Absentia I made a promise to myself to make sure I checked out whatever director Mike Flanagan did next. So when Oculus was making the rounds, I missed it at the theater but was able to check it out about a week ago on the advice of a good friend.  And I was not disappointed.

Here's the thing.  I've always been freaked out by mirrors (evidenced right here), so it's a given I'd see Oculus - the story of the Russell siblings who have experienced a horrific past trauma that they are still dealing with in the present day, in particular Kaylie (Karen Gillan).

Her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) in a fit of panic as a youngster, killed their father after witnessing him murder their mother.  He's been incarcerated (well, holed up in a psychiatric hospital) for over ten years and has finally come to terms with his crime and has even embraced the dysfunction of it all.  Not so for Kaylie, who is determined to clear her father's name - and in turn, Tim's - by placing the blame for the tragedy on a mirror.  Not just any mirror, but one that has been supposedly to blame for the deaths of dozens of people who have owned or come into contact with said evil mirror over the last few centuries.

While this sounds utterly preposterous in theory, I must say the film works on nearly every level. Much of it is told in flashbacks, as we see Tim and Kaylie's father Alan (Rory Cochrane) install the dreaded mirror (which is a ridiculously over-sized, gothic beast) in his study where he promptly holes up in for hours at a time.  The kids' mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff) seems to teeter on the edge of sanity - or are we just meant to think that? - and begins quizzing the kids about their father's whereabouts and just what he might be doing in the study.  Because we are privy to the past, we get to know the younger versions of Tim and Kaylie (Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso) as they struggle with the ever-increasing peculiar behavior of both parents. 

 In present, Kaylie has convinced Tim to meet her at their old house to confront the antique mirror (which she has tracked down and procured from an auction house where she conveniently works) and destroy it.  She is certain it is the cause of all their family woes, and thus by "accusing" the mirror of dastardly deeds should be able to force it to start the inevitable chain of events that spurs supernatural events that in turn will then be its own ruin.  She devises an elaborate scheme, setting up surveillance equipment to catch the mirror in preternatural action, and in fact has even installed a "kill switch", which is an anchor designed to break the mirror at a specific time.  Kaylie is obsessed with destroying the mirror once and for all, and will stop at nothing to accomplish this goal, even though brother Tim is wondering if she is perhaps the crazy sibling, instead of himself.

What makes Oculus terrifying is the slow pace at which it moves, but never enough to bore you.  The pacing is very good, with the necessary flashbacks not wasting any of your time.  In fact, the children playing the younger Russells are quite excellent in their portrayals, digging in deep for effective emotions running the gamut from confusion to true terror. You can't help but to root for them, and even as adults they conjure such desperation that you become completely immersed in their horror. 

One of the best things about the film is the sincere lack of jump scares. It's more of a "did I just see what I think I saw?" kind of movie, where anxiety and tension overtake the need to see blood and gore.  There is a bit of the red stuff, in particular when Kaylie's hallucination while eating an apple will have you cringing.  But don't get the impression that the film has no scares, it's quite the opposite.  Not much is scarier than looking into a mirror and seeing something (or someone) that shouldn't be there, and this film has that in droves. The "now you see it, now you don't" bit doesn't work in every movie, but for Oculus, it's the meat on the bone. As mother Marie starts to sink further and further into the abyss, she hallucinates that she is physically rotting, and indeed as her mental state declines, she becomes more and more feral, and with her husband thoroughly under the influence of the (shall we say) demonic mirror, events take a nasty turn and the full scope of truth about what happened the night their parents died becomes clear.

But it's how we get to that point that is so deliciously frightening.  As adult Kaylie and Tim try to force supernatural events to occur by setting the mirror up to provoke an occurrence, they realize that the mirror is actually in charge, and has them seeing things that aren't there, doing things they don't recall, hearing voices, ending up in places they can't account for, hallucinating, and in the end has such a powerful hold on them that the two siblings begin to argue as they try to piece together what actually happened that horrible night and how to deal with those circumstances.

As stated, all of the acting here is very commendable, with a special shout out to both Annalise Basso (young Kaylie) and Katee Sackhoff (Marie).  Everyone gave honest, believable performances, which may be hard to believe in a film about a haunted mirror.  But the concept is truly effective here.  Who wasn't freaked out by the image of Samara in the mirror in The Ring, or that utterly horrifying scene from Poltergeist when that guy ripped his own face off?  Mirrors are creepy, dammit.

Also lending a big heap of dread is the eerie score from The Newton Brothers.  A subtle yet pulse pounding piece of music that conjures up nightmares without even seeing the film, I don't think I've liked a score as much since 2012's ominous Sinister. In fact, I listened to the score while writing this review.  Inspiring!

It seemed, at the finish of the perhaps surprising ending, that the filmmakers were going for a possible franchise, leaving the finale rather open-ended.  Whether or not we see another family struggle with the likes of this haunted antique again remains to be seen, but at least it's a relatively fresh idea for the most part.

So I leave you with the sincere recommendation to seek out this film.  I imagine it has its naysayers who found it too slow or not bloody enough - but for someone who relishes a deliberate, drawn-out pace like myself, it was a breath of fresh air, and an intelligent, well-acted and complexly written piece. Do check it out.

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