Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oculus (2014) Review

Directed by 
Mike Flanagan

            Demonic possessions take many forms in the movies.  From Chucky dolls (Child’s Play) to videotapes (The Ring) to cars (Christine), cinematic demons show little discrimination for what material form they choose to manifest themselves through. 
            In Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, the object providing a medium for demons to haunt innocent victims is an antique mirror, and this leads to the first major problem with the movie: The fact that a mirror serves as the object of possession proves ultimately rather incidental.  It may as well have been a chandelier or window or toenail clippers or a toilet seat cover.  Demons possessed Chucky in order to communicate with the other characters in the movie, while in The Ring, characters who watched the video died shortly afterwards.   In other words, those demons were purposeful in selecting their channels for interacting with the real world.  In Oculus, it is not as though the characters enter the mirror and are transformed into an altered and distorted state.  That would demand a higher degree of originality and creativity that this movie simply doesn’t have.  No, sorry to say, the mirror is just your typical run-of-the-mill possessed object – you know, the ones that kill people and turn off the lights and cause everyone else around the main characters to call them crazy. 
As for the mirror itself, it looks innocent enough – not unlike one found in a backroom of a secondhand pawn shop.  But somehow unbeknownst to nearly every character in Oculus, it actually carries a long and ominous history of owners who have gone crazy and killed themselves and others (it’s pretty remarkable how comprehensive and detailed this history is, but I’ll try to suspend my disbelief).  As the film opens, we are introduced to a pair of grown siblings who have been separated for a considerable amount of time as a result of being traumatized by the mirror as kids: Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who has devoted much of her young adult life to tracking down the mirror through auction houses, and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who is just being released from a prolonged stay at a mental institution.  Their deceased parents fell victim to the mirror when Kaylie and Tim were pre-adolescents, and now that they have found the mirror once again, they have vowed to show the world its supernatural sinister power.
 At least that’s what Kaylie wants to do.  Tim’s many years of psychotherapy have convinced him that the tragic events of the past were simply the result of all-too-human malice, and as a result, he spends much of the first half of Oculus functioning as the conscientious skeptic pitted against Kaylie’s firmly committed truth-seeker.  In a strange way, the movie bears resemblance to The Butterfly Effect (which also featured a lead character named Kaylie): The horrible things which transpired in the past are framed through the present-day perspectives of the grown characters.  This leads to an interesting but ultimately pointless strategy by writer-director Flanagan: Instead of structuring the narrative in discrete flashback and present-day units, events of the past and present are shown as fluid, meaning that on occasion pre-teen Tim and grownup Tim share the same space within the frame (it would have been nice to see the two versions of Tim have a conversation with one another like the witty diner scene in Looper, but the movie is too concerned with boo! moments than Kafkaesque self-inquiry). 
I call this strategy pointless because it doesn’t really reveal anything important or identifiable in the ways in which the mirror haunts Kaylie and Tim.  After seeing Oculus, I can definitively state that the most effed-up thing the mirror does to its victims is make them think they are using a particular object for a specific purpose, but in fact it turns out to be a completely different object.  For example, a character thinks that he or she is biting into an apple when – Whoops! – it turns out to be a lightbulb.  But this only happens two or three times.  Nearby plants die, the power goes out and the phone lines go down.  Yada yada yada.  And yes, demons are unleashed through the mirror, but they do little except for scream and run around clumsily.  They’re not too unlike the zombies in Zombieland.
Anyway, the real thrust of Kaylie’s experiment is to prove definitively to Tim and the rest of the world that her father (Rory Cochrane) wasn’t a sadistic psycho who randomly killed his wife (Katee Sackhoff) shortly after moving her and young Kaylie and Tim into a new house.  She wants to show that the mirror was the thing that convinced him to do it.  That’s fine and dandy, except (A) How Kaylie is able to get ahold of the mirror without anyone else knowing the backstory of her relationship to it is completely implausible, (B) She doesn’t seem to realize that messing around with the mirror won’t bring her parents back to life or meaningfully exonerate her father, and (C) The damage has already been done – her parents are dead and her brother’s spent his teenage years institutionalized.  And then there’s the fundamental (and unanswered) question of why as kids Kaylie and Tim were impervious to the powers of the mirror in the first place.  Of course, you’re not supposed to ask these questions of logic during a horror movie like Oculus.  But that doesn’t absolve the movie of a responsibility to uphold the intelligence of its audience, which it fails to do particularly during its final half.  Malevolent things happen for no reason which is of course bad for the characters, but it’s bad for the movie when the audience stops seeking to locate a reasonable explanation and simply chalks it up to “demons are really bad and all-powerful.”
 Oculus has two initial strengths working for it.  One is the mirror itself – a fertile and creatively rich object which could be used in a variety of primordial ways to freak the characters (and audiences) out.  The other is the Moulder-and-Skully-like dynamic between Kaylie and Tim.  But somehow, neither of these strengths ever really materialize.  Worse yet, the movie isn’t even all that scary.  Because we know the supernatural power of the mirror from the onset, witnessing its sensational effects is never really that shocking.  And because the movie emphasizes that the mirror distorts reality, we soon sense the manipulative ways in which the screenplay selectively chooses to merge and divide the real-world from illusion when most convenient.  
Once upon a time, there was a movie called Candyman which also featured a demon using a mirror to channel its evil prowess.  In that movie, Virginia Madsen played a graduate student (getting her degree in folk studies, not horticulture) who is told to look into the mirror and say Candyman’s name five times.  Then, a Lionel Richie-looking demon would become unleashed and put the poor souls at Cabrini-Green out of their misery.  That was a movie which worked not only because it used mirrors better but because it more closely adhered to a proscribed set of rules.  Oculus doesn’t use rules, which makes for bloody chaos.  Instead, a movie should have been made about someone giving the antique mirror as a gag gift to Billy Bob Thornton.  At least then there would have been some legitimate terror. 

Rating: 2 stars

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