Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval
MPAA Rating: (for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 4/11/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 10, 2014
Movies about supernatural forces either explicitly or implicitly state a whole string of rules for those forces. They can do this, but they can't do that. Their strength is this, and their weakness is that. Well, here is a film about a supernatural force that has one rule: It doesn't follow any given set of rules. The expectation for such rules has become so engrained in our experience of these matters that our first response to Oculus, a horror film about a killer mirror (which is probably low on everyone's list of things that, were they to become murderous, would actually be frightening), is to fight back against or reject its assertion that this particular supernatural thing can do whatever it wants.
If the mirror—or the being in or possessing the mirror (even this is never completely clear)—has a weakness, the screenplay by director/editor Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard doesn't bother to tell us. That ultimately works to the film's advantage, because there's no apparent way to stop this thing once it starts. It will just keep going and going about its deadly business until the job is complete. Its strength is the very act of trying to stop it. It's defensive, one of the characters has noticed, and its ability for self-preservation is much more effective than any foolish mortal who would dare attempt to destroy it.
Discovering the method of this mirror is the film's central delight. At first, the entire enterprise appears to have absolutely no sense of understanding regarding its inanimate but very active villain, but that's just the pushback from our traditional beliefs about how such a thing should be introduced—with a checklist of what we should anticipate. It's not necessarily better, but it is refreshing to watch a horror film where the beats aren't telegraphed to us well before they happen.
Admittedly, a lot in the film is silly and contradicts logic, but at least the second part of that is essentially the point. The film opens with a false scare, which turns out to be appropriate, and soon we meet Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), who is about to be released from a psychiatric hospital after an 11-year incarceration for killing his father.
His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) works for an auction house and has her eye on an antique mirror. She picks up her brother from the hospital, takes him to lunch, and starts showing him apartment listings so he can get his life back together before she starts speaking in really cryptic phrases about old promises and destroying the evil that has ruined their lives. It's not exactly recommended conversation to have with someone who has just been released from a mental health facility.
It's Kaylie who seems ready for an extended stay at such a place, as she begins talking to the mirror and seeing harmless statues covered in tarps move in the glass' reflection. It gets worse after she has Tim meet her at their family home, where the mirror is now hung from the same place it was when they were children. By the time she's halfway through with the detailed back story she's pieced together about the history of the mirror's owners who have died under unusual circumstances, we start to wonder why Tim hasn't called his doctor to have some people pick Kaylie up for a trip to the hospital herself.
That's the question for a while: Is the mirror really evil, or is Kaylie just doing mental gymnastics to explain the horrors of her familial past? The film moves back and forth between the survivors in the present and their younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) 11 years ago, as they and their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) move into a new house and start to drift into madness (Never, ever attempt to cut a bandage with a staple remover; that device's purpose is in its name). By the time the film reaches its climax, the past and present blur and intersect in ways that defy nature. It might seem unwieldy, but it works in context.
A lot of that has to do with how Flanagan eases us into what could easily be a confounding mess, especially after the film answers that first question without equivocation. There's evidence to explain the specifics of the mirror's approach (The general gist of it is apparent earlier) along the way, such as how both siblings are able to remember events to which they were not privy. Characters and items disappear and reappear with no warning. It becomes apparent that the flashbacks are not a storytelling device but an interruption for the characters' rather backwards plan to destroy the mirror, which involves a timed release mechanism attached to an anchor (The protagonists have no concerns repeatedly walking in its intended path).
It also helps that Flanagan knows how to build up to and fulfill the promise of a scare. He's comfortable with silence here, particularly in using long stretches of it during the time in which we know something is coming to startle us and the characters. When it hits, there isn't the usual musical sting accompanying it. There's a confidence of technique in not relying on the standard clichés of form and allowing those moments to develop without manipulation. It's the same kind of confidence that the narrative of Oculus displays by not limiting itself to set rules. There's freedom in that, and the film exploits that to solid effect.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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