Oculus (2013)

APRIL 10, 2014

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

A funny thing occurred to me moments before buying my ticket to Oculus tonight - I actually had no idea what the movie was about. I hadn't seen a single trailer or TV spot (yay for DVR!), and the posters around town just showed some typical supernatural horror images that told me nothing. So why was I there, if not compelled by what I had seen or learned about the film's premise? Simple: it was the followup film from Mike Flanagan, who made the terrific Absentia a couple years back*, and thus I'd be there even if it wasn't horror. But also, I was curious where I'd stand on the movie, as all week I had seen fellow horror writers arguing about the movie's merit or lack thereof - whose side would I be on, if any?

Sadly, I inch closer to the ones who didn't like it very much. I didn't HATE it by any means, and I'd even give it another look a few years down the road, but I was left disappointed for sure. And this is where my ignorance (by design - I actually wish I could see all movies with a blank slate) may have hurt a bit; had I known it was a haunted mirror movie, I would have gone in with a "this is a haunted mirror movie" attitude instead of a "This is the new film from a filmmaker who really impressed me the last time out". I'm not sure there has ever been a good haunted mirror movie - my favorite thing in the genre would probably be the Jim Steinman spoken word piece "I've Been Dreaming Up A Storm Lately", where he rambles about a mirror that shows him a reflection of someone and then he has to find the person that matches it (yes, this is the same scenario as the David Warner segment in From Beyond the Grave, which had the good sense to be an episode instead of a feature). When I think of the full length films in this sub-sub-genre, I think of Mirrors (eh), the Amityville sequel (worst in the series?) and the horrendous Witchboard 3. This is actually better than all of those, but that's such a low bar to clear it's not even worth pointing out.

But hey, at least now I know what it's about! A young man is being released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday, greeted by his sister (Karen Gillan, who only took about 5 minutes to make me understand why so many people watch Doctor Who) who doesn't seem to hold any real grudge against him for killing their dad (hence the lockup). Before long, she's convinced him to come back to their childhood home and help her with an experiment - proving that the giant black mirror that their father (Rory Cochrane) had bought (and had conveniently been more or less dropped b.ack into her hands) possessed some sort of supernatural energy, and was actually to blame for their parents' deaths. They set up a bunch of cameras, and Gillan explains a bunch of confusing "rules" about the scenario - an alarm will go off every hour to remind them to eat, no one can use a cell phone in the vicinity of the mirror, etc.

She also offers up a complete history of the mirror's "crimes", and that's where the movie starts to falter (well, unless you count the less than impressive performance from the guy playing Gillan's brother, which just makes her presence more enticing). It's just too much info at once; strange for a movie that really only has two people in its present day sequences. There's no reason that they couldn't have saved some of the background on the mirror's victims for a bit later, or just had the brother read up on it on his own - especially since it doesn't really matter in the long run. The victims appear as ghostly menaces, but they're not full blown characters - it'd be like if Lin Shaye stopped cold 20 minutes into Insidious to explain who all those random ghosts were in The Further. The REAL story that we care about is what happened to their parents - the other stuff is best saved for DVD bonus features for those who wanted to explore the mythology a bit more.

So it's no surprise that the movie works much better when it's in flashback mode, showing us when the happy family moved into the house, how the mirror started to affect Cochrane, how his strange behavior and the kids' insistence that they saw a woman in his office led matriarch Katee Sackhoff to believe that he was having an affair, etc. In the present day, they're just trying to prove that the mirror is evil, which we kind of already know, so it's not particularly compelling - however there is still the question of how things played out in the past. Did the brother kill the father out of self-defense, or was he possessed as well (and if so, is he still)? How did the mother die? And what's with the food thing? But even though I was enjoying these scenes more, I couldn't help but be concerned that the movie was more interesting when showing us things where we knew the ending (if not the specifics), and rather dull when focusing on the present day where the outcome wasn't already known to us.

And that's the other thing - the movie didn't really strike me as scary. It's refreshingly low on jump scares, which is impressive for a movie about looking at a mirror - but it never quite gels as a low key, creepy thing either (which Absentia excelled at, I should say). There's a pretty great bit involving an apple, and the chain of events that result in the parents' deaths is exciting, but otherwise it always feels like it's missing an ingredient or two. The concept is fun and I like that they take a more scientific approach to their attempt at proving that it's evil (she's even prepared for the electricity going out, adorning the entire house with battery operated lanterns), but it just never snaps to life. I had forgotten that it was based on a short film that Flanagan had done before Absentia, but once I recalled, the movie's lax pacing and lack of increased stakes made sense - they stretched out a 30 minute concept into (well) over 90, rather than use the short as a jumping off point for an expanded, more elaborate story. Instead of going forward, he went backwards, fleshing out the story of the protagonist's childhood and splitting the character into two (in the short, the lone male seeks answers; now it's the female while the male sort of protests). Personally, I'd have had the experiment end at the end of the first act and spend the next hour on the what if scenario - they have undeniable proof that a mirror is haunted, now what?

On the other hand, I'm happy that this kind of movie is playing in wide release. Sure, it's a Blumhouse release, so it'll get lumped in with the Insidiouses and Paranormal Activities of the world in terms of expectations, but it's not likely to appeal to the same audiences (though the R rating should hopefully ward off the teens who would give it WORST MOVIE EVER! "reviews" afterward due to the slower pace and lack of dumb jump scares). It's original and demands your attention, which is unusual for a wide horror release - even if it doesn't really work all that well, I appreciate the effort to do something than another goddamn found footage haunting story (which this easily could have been, given the cameras used in the experiment and the younger versions of the kids' obsession with tech devices). I have also heard rumblings of re-editing, which could make or break a movie like this - snipping 10 minutes out of a Paranormal Activity movie can't really hurt, but a movie that's trying to draw you in and give you more of a skin-crawling effect needs time to work its mojo.

So: oh well. Again, maybe I'll like it more on a second view, but as of right now I won't be joining the argument on Twitter; I didn't dislike it enough to give it any more shit than I already have (mostly concerning its hideous end credits, which look like public access dreck), but I certainly can't join the ranks of its supporters. It's an OK-ish movie that I had higher hopes for, and that's about it. Flanagan already has another movie in post, so I hopefully won't have to wait another 3 years to see what this obviously talented filmmaker has up his sleeve - I may not have loved this, but as with guys like Ti West, I know that they'll never make anything generic, and will give us something to talk about after - since opinions will always vary, that's all we can really ask for.

What say you?

*The only other thing I knew about Oculus was that Absentia's lovely Katie Parker was supposed to be in it. Sadly, the scene was cut, which just proves my theory that a longer version will probably be better.


3 comments:

  1. This does nothing to disprove your there about the subgenre sucking, but there's also Boogeyman.

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  2. I saw this tonight and liked it more than you did. I think some of your criticisms are fair, but I guess those things didn't bother me as much. I had never seen Karen Gillan in anything before, but I liked her quite a bit. The guy playing her brother didn't bother me. I liked the back-and-forth structure, although I agree the flashback segments were a bit more interesting. It worked as a slow burn/creepy movie for me. Sadly, the bit with the apple was spoiled for me, because they used it in the TV spots.

    As far as haunted mirror movies, the only other ones I can think of are the four mostly bad "Mirror Mirror" movies. Unless you count "Candyman."

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