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New Review: Oculus (2014)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rorey Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval
There are two ways to look at Oculus: Either it's a horror movie about two siblings battling an evil mirror, or it's a psychological mystery about two siblings so greatly wounded as children that they created this far-fetched fantasy to make better sense out of a senselessly tragic moment in their lives. What's interesting about the movie is that it can honestly be interpreted in either way. Director Mike Flanagan has the movie play out in such a hallucinatory manner that we're not sure if what we're seeing is real, a memory, a manifestation of the the character's damaged psyche, or something else. The movie is not particularly scary, but it is an unusually captivating and haunting experience.
Eleven years ago, 12-year old Kaylie Russell (Annalise Basso) and her 10-year old brother Tim (Garrett Ryan) witnessed their father (Rory Cochrane) murder their mother (Katee Sackhoff) with a six-shooter. After the incident, Kaylie was sent to live in foster care, while Tim, who shot and killed his father, was sent to a mental institution. Kaylie has always believed that an old antique mirror, called Lasser Glass, was responsible for everything that happened that night. Now a young adult (and played by Karen Gillan), she hatches a plan to obtain the mirror, bring it back to their old childhood home, and destroy the thing with a yacht anchor after she proves of its malevolence.
She enlists the aid of her brother Tim (now played by Brenton Thwaites), who has just been released from the institution, and would like nothing more than to move on with his life. At first, he's hesitant about participating, but he eventually agrees to meet his sister at the house, if only to talk her into letting the whole thing go. A good thirty minutes of the movie focuses on Kaylie stating her case about why she believes the mirror to be haunted, while Tim acts like the voice of reason and counters every argument that she makes.
Kaylie said she saw a mysterious woman with her father in his office; Tim argues that maybe he was having an affair. Kaylie discovers that many of the mirror's previous owners have died under mysterious circumstances; Tim says "So what?" and reminds her of the many things that happened after their family purchased a living room sofa. These scenes are actually very well-written and acted, and because they precede the horror movie elements of the second half, they force us to question whether what happens is the work of some supernatural force, or hallucinations brought on by past traumas.
It's interesting to see how Flanagan works with the material. The first half of the movie tells two separate stories: The present day attempts made by Kaylie to destroy the mirror, and the story of when Tim and Kaylie were kids, and the events that eventually led to that fateful night. The climax takes it one step further, having the past and the present overlap, and younger and older versions of the same character acknowledge one another. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have become confusing and frustrating, but there is a pattern in the way Flanagan has the movie play out, and the conclusion he reaches is not only fair, but also quite heartbreaking.
The performances are all surprisingly superb. Cochrane and Sackhoff are aces as the parents, but the best performances are, I'd argue, turned in by the youngest members of the cast. Gillan is dynamite as Kaylie, creating a character who's spunky, vulnerable, and always a joy to watch. Thwaites brings considerable depth to the role of Tim, and the sibling chemistry he shares with Gillan is solid and, at times, quite touching. The two kids Basso and Ryan, however, are phenomenal. Their characters are put through physical and emotional hell over the course of the movie, and the fear and anguish they convey is so affecting that there are moments in the film that are just a little too difficult to watch.
Oculus is not a perfect movie. For starters, it's really not that scary. Gruesome? Sometimes, very much so (not just for the light bulb munching scene; look what happens when dad tries to remove a band aid from his finger using a staple remover). Atmospheric? Unquestionably, thanks to the outstanding cinematography by Michael Fimognari. Scary? Not really (I'm sorry, but those white eyed demons just didn't do anything for me). There's also a huge flaw in Kaylie's plan to prove that the mirror is evil. She has cameras set-up in the room where the mirror is at, so that when it does something supernatural, she can catch it on film. The problem is that the mirror doesn't make things happen on its own. Instead, it manipulates people into doing things they wouldn't normally do, and without them knowing it (we learn that one mother drowned her children in a bathtub, and she thought she was simply tucking them into bed). So, technically, the only thing she'll be able to pick up on camera is her and her brother doing things without them even knowing it, right? (There is a bit about plants dying right on the spot, but the movie doesn't really explain that).
And while I do accept that the movie is about childhood trauma, there are those who might be turned off by the violence against the two young children. More than once, both children are threatened and held at gunpoint, and both children are repeatedly strangled by their parents. There is one harrowing scene where Kaylie finds her mother chained up in her bedroom with a dog collar around her neck, and the scene where young Tim is forced to shoot his father dead is particularly grueling. Because of the material, I didn't find the movie exploitative, but there are going to be those who will.
Some critics have said that a sequel will most certainly be in the works. I really hope that isn't the case. It would be a mistake to make one, seeing as how the highlight of the movie is its sense of mystery, and a sequel would rob this movie of that. Some of you may think that the mirror is evil and that's that. The movie certainly hints that it could very well be. Some might think the mirror has nothing to do with what happens in the film, and if one were able to discuss the movie in more detail, they might make a solid case for that. The thing is that Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard, never offer any easy answers in the end.
You'll just have to see the movie and decide for yourself.
Rated R for violence, blood, some disturbing images, and a little profanity
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)
What did you think of this movie? :)
Other Thoughts on Oculus (2014)! :D
- Oculus Movie Review & Film Summary (2014) | Roger Ebert
- Reelviews Movie Reviews
- Dustin Putman's Review: Oculus (2014)
Oculus (2014) - 2/4 Stars - The buzz, it turns out, has overinflated a film with a riveting structure and not much else going for it.
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