Oculus is a rather pretentious title for a rather straightforward movie, but despite the assembly line nature of its’ construction, the film still has something going for it. At first it’s hard to say precisely what the film has to offer, because on the surface it deals with so many basic and time-worn horror conventions that it seems to be almost aggressively unoriginal. But as the film picks up speed, and accelerates its march towards death and damnation, it gathers a certain sort of peculiar power that isn’t without value. I’m not about to give away the ending here, or any of the major plot twists, because those are the main things the film has to recommend it. Yet having said that, there’s a certain Resnais-like fatalism to the film that reverberates in one’s memory, despite the workmanlike nature of the film as a whole.
Though released theatrically today, April 11, 2014, the film was shot in 2012-2013, and was first screened on September 8, 2013, at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s yet another of the Jason Blum / Blumhouse Productions, all of which are low budget horror films, and the best of which to date is The Purge. Blum has a deal with Universal under which he cranks out numerous horror films in the $3 million or so range, but many of them don’t even see the light of day in DVD or streaming format, much less get a theatrical release. His idea is to keep on cranking out as many films as he can, and then see if anything sticks.
Despite the fact that there are a number of cinematic corpses, so to speak, sitting around in Blum’s vaults, with the number of films Blum makes, some of them are bound to hit. The Purge is going into a sequel, which from the looks of the trailer seems a sort of knock off of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – the premise being that for twelve hours all criminal acts are legal, which acts as a societal safety valve. In the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, a group of people are left outside when the purge starts, and have to run across a city in lockdown to safety, but it lacks Ethan Hawke in the lead, and screams “knock off” in every department. But I digress.
Oculus is about a haunted mirror, a staple of cinematic fantasy since the days of Georges Méliès. It’s been used in countless episodes of television series, such as Thriller and Twilight Zone, though my favorite variation on this well-worn theme remains the episode of the classic omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), directed by Robert Hamer, in which Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) buys an ornate, oversize antique mirror as a gift for her husband Peter (Ralph Michael), only to discover that the previous owner killed his wife in front of it in a fit of jealousy, and that Peter is now falling under the mirror’s influence, as well. It’s one of the great horror stories of the cinema, and remains the most effective version of this tale, but for all that Oculus still has, as I suggested, something to add to the subgenre.
In 2002, young children Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) and his sister Kaylie (Annalise Basso) watch in horror as a cursed mirror takes possession of their father (Rory Cochrane), who tortures and then kills their mother (Katee Sackhoff). Grabbing his father’s gun, Tim kills the father to protect himself and his sister, and is thus carted off to a mental hospital for the “murder.” No one believes Tim’s story of the mirror’s evil power, of course; this is just a kid who got out of line and killed his father in a delusional state.
Flash forward to 2013; young adult Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is getting out of the mental hospital, supposedly cured, and entirely convinced that the whole “haunted mirror” theory that he and his sister espoused as children is nonsense; the entire episode has a perfectly logical explanation, and ten years of psychotherapy have conditioned him to dismiss the supernatural. The adult Kaylie (Karen Gillan), however, has tracked the mirror down, and knows what’s really happening; the mirror is indeed haunted. In fact, it has gone through numerous owners over the course of several hundred years, and is responsible for some 45 gruesome deaths, which Kaylie has researched and documented. Now, with Tim’s help, she hopes to destroy it once and for all, to prevent it from ever exerting its evil influence on anyone else again.
Kaylie finds the mirror at an auction, just as her brother is being released from the mental hospital, and arranges with him to install the mirror in the house where the murders occurred – it’s never been sold in all the years Tim has been confined – with masses of video cameras, still camera, a kill switch, and other electronic gear to document the mirror’s malign powers in action.
Thus the first forty minutes are largely given over to setting up the main situation –early on, Tim suggests they simply smash the mirror, and get it over with, but is unable to bring himself to accomplish this, suggesting that the mirror’s power is both real and subtly manifest – and they tend to drag along, as Kaylie orders Tim about, sets up video cameras and timers, and checks in with her boyfriend via cellphone on an hourly basis, to make sure that all is going well.
But then things start to get interesting. The mirror has the power to create hallucinations – you think you’re in the hallway, but you’re not – you think you’re a child again, but you’re not, or are you? – that’s your mother’s ghost in the hallway, or your father’s, or it isn’t – you think you’re talking on the phone to someone, but it’s really the mirror answering back – and soon past and present are blended together into an intricate tapestry of interlocking violence and deceit that becomes more and more complex with each passing moment, until the viewer is as confused, and duped, as Kaylie and Tim. This is the film’s strongest aspect, and director Mike Flanagan handles it beautifully. But there are drawbacks.
As the two main adult characters, Gillan and Thwaites are serviceable, but nothing more; actually, their younger selves, played by Basso and Ryan, are much more competent actors, and they seem much more genuinely at risk throughout the film, especially towards the end. Cochrane has the meatiest part, in every sense of the word, and he does a solid job with it, though when he brings home a loaded gun to “protect” the family early on in the film, you pretty much get a sense of where things are going – the gun is on the wall in the first act, and sure enough, it’s pressed into service in the third act. The setup takes too long to get rolling, and the visions of the damned – past victims of the mirror – rely on visual tropes as old as William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) – white blobs for eyes, demonic grins, and sudden “shock” appearances when the characters turn around to make you – theoretically – jump out of you seat.
But for all that, as the film gathers considerable power in the last, time-shifting thirty minutes or so, it more than makes up for the thrice-borrowed framing story; the denouement, while not unexpected, is also suitably bleak, and given the nature of the narrative, probably all too accurate. It isn’t too much of a giveaway to say that evil triumphs, and the mirror remains intact. But exactly how it accomplishes this, and thus, of course, gives rise to the inevitable sequel if Oculus proves successful at the box office, I’ll leave for you to find out.
But what’s most intriguing to me is that the film offers a number of disturbing insights into the responsibilities of adulthood, when you can no longer depend on family, friends or the authorities to extend to you either the support, or the leniency, that comes with being a child. At some point in life, you’re absolutely on your own, and that’s something that really comes across in this film, in the last images of despair and loss. There’s some real depth here behind the stock shock scares, and it really comes through in the overall design of the film.
Shot for a reported $5 million in Alabama, and directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan, Oculus is ultimately a stylish programmer that nevertheless has enough intelligence, style, and drive to grab your attention in the final act to make the rest of the trip worthwhile. There’s a place for an imaginative, low budget horror movie that relies more on psychological terror and suspense, and much less on gore, sort of like an updated version of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), though I can predict with fair certainty that if there is a sequel to the film, it will be a by-the-numbers exercise of no value or resonance, just as the sequel to The Purge appears to be.
I saw the film at a 10PM show on the night before it opened with a largely college age audience, who were surprisingly attentive to the film, but for whom, apparently, plot points that seemed exceedingly obvious to me from a long way off came as a complete – with audible gasps – surprise. But even for those who can see the twists coming, the intricacy and speed with which the time and reality shifts start coming at the viewer in the last section are more than enough reason to see the film. And one last thing; the mirror is a dead ringer for the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. This, I think, is no accident.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes frequently for Film International.