I clearly bit off more than I can chew this semester, and as a result my posts have taken a dip in terms of, ah, existing. I’d like to say it’s because I’m too busy with work, but there’s a reason I’m the Angry Scholar and not the Mature Responsible Manages His Time Very Well Like a Big Boy Scholar. But I’m not giving up on this, dagnabbit. So let’s talk about Oculus.
Today was opening day for this film in the US (I started writing this Friday night, but it’s looking like it won’t get posted until Saturday morning), so for a change I’m getting a review out relatively early. Bafflingly, the opening credits announce that this is co-produced by WWE Studios–yes, that WWE. I’m not sure what it says about major motion pictures getting produced by the same studio as professional wrasslin’. Except that this film, like pretty much every film, would have been greatly improved by an Ultimate Warrior cameo.
The film focuses on siblings Tim, recently released from a mental hospital, and Kaylie, who eleven years previously were subject to a traumatic event involving their parents that is conveniently revealed in easily-digestible breadcrumbs along the path to the movie’s human-sized oven of a conclusion. Was that too much? I was trying to do a Hansel and Gretel thing. Fizzled. Whoosh.
So Tim’s been locked away and Kaylie’s evidently spent her time researching the ugly antique mirror that used to hang in the family’s home, and also getting engaged to a really rich guy whose occupation, from what the movie tells us, involves standing in the background at antique auctions and having perhaps a little too much patience with his beloved’s eccentricities. No sooner is Tim out in the world and settled into his crappy apartment than Kaylie starts to pester him about “killing it,” hinting at their dark past and getting all intense and Donna-from-That-’70s-Show-y.
Kaylie believes that the antique mirror which used to hang in her father’s office is possessed by some kind of supernatural entity which caused her parents to go nuts and her father to get all trigger-happy, Amityville-style. It has done the same to everyone who’s owned it since the 17th century. So Kaylie she sets up an overly-elaborate ghost-hunting rig in their childhood house (which passed to her by default after sitting on the housing market for the better part of a decade) in order to, I don’t know, catch the ghost in a compromising moment or whatever. She puts the mirror right back up on the wall, focuses a bunch of cameras on it, and contrives this fail safe device that consists of a big anchor hanging from the ceiling which will automatically drop and shatter the mirror if a timer isn’t reset every hour.
Already some holes appear, n’est-ce pas? The evil thing in the mirror, never fully explained, can take control of people in various ways, either through direct possession or through the use of illusion. It’s able to prevent people from attacking it directly. So Kaylie’s plan, I guess, is to a) document all the weird shit it does, and b) eventually let the anchor thing break it? I don’t know, I wasn’t super clear on the end game here. She explains to the skeptical Tim that part of her idea is to leave a record that will prove she wasn’t crazy to all the mean kids who picked on her over the years–but one sort of wonders why she didn’t just set the anchor rig up and then get the hell out of the house and let it do its thing. Or, actually, why she had to take it back to their childhood home at all. There are a lot of little “dramatic” flourishes that sort of feel appropriate in the context of horror, but really don’t make much logical sense, and at this stage in my horror-watching career I’m pretty well fed up with unrealistic motivations.
I kind of liked the conceit of the mirror killing through illusion–not that it’s anything new, but they accomplished that with some aplomb. The problems arise when the film splits into two separate movies that are grafted together somewhat randomly. Much of the narrative is set in the past, with younger versions of Tim and Kaylie dealing with their father’s increasingly erratic, and ultimately violent, behavior. These past scenes often transition directly, without a clear cut, into the present; so, for instance, in one scene, old Tim walks up the stairs in the house and turns around to watch as young Tim runs down the stairs away from his insane mother. This was kind of cool. The fast transitions and the blurring together of the past and present was done fairly well. But the two separate narratives, past and present, are at odds with one another in a few important ways.
The first is the nature of the mirror and the supernatural beings contained within it. In the past, it causes the children’s parents to slowly go insane. In the present, it seems to operate more through illusion, convincing the protagonists that they see things that don’t exist, and blanking their memories of important events (in one scene they rearrange all of Kaylie’s camera equipment without realizing it, only discovering it after the fact when they review one of the video feeds). I suppose the difference could have to do with the fact that the siblings know the mirror’s true nature, and so it can’t act on them directly the way it did their parents. I’ll accept that kind of rule in a supernatural film, but it creates a weird split in terms of atmosphere between the two narratives that doesn’t quite get stitched together in a convincing way.
Another thing is the acting. The kids are better than the grownups this go-round. Annalise Basso, who plays the young version of protagonist Kaylie, carries the flashback portions (roughly 50% of the film), and for a change is a pretty tough, take-charge kind of kid, which maybe doesn’t make all that much sense, but is somehow refreshing in a genre where most children characters (especially girls) are pretty ineffectual. Karen Gillan, the adult Kaylie, is fine, though there’s something kind of wooden about her performance. Also the way she chews that apple just makes me crazy. Guh. For his part, Tim, in both the past and the present, is perfectly adequate, but nothing to write home about.
This is not to say that it’s all bad. There are some enjoyable moments, and Oculus is worth a watch if you’re craving some ghostly shenanigans. It certainly compares favorably to Amityville: A New Generation, which is the only other haunted mirror movie that springs readily to mind (though it lacks that film’s awesome ’90s ‘tude, dude). Another thing I appreciated is that, with the exception of Tim, who’s been subjected to institutional psychobabble for a decade, Kaylie doesn’t have to spend any time debating with others over the supernatural character of the mirror. I mean, she accepts it from the outset and sets about concocting a (ridiculous) plan to destroy it. Tim resists her interpretation of events for a good chunk of the film, but his resistance is at least plausible due to his long stint in the asylum. Kaylie also approaches the mirror (quite literally) with a cocky, badass sort of attitude, which is equal parts refreshing and obnoxious (it’s like smacking a great white in the nose with a wiffle-ball bat and daring it to eat your torso). The trailer captures her (perhaps overweening) confidence pretty well:
But it lacks subtlety. Oculus has been billed as produced by the same folks responsible for Paranormal Activity and Insidious, which in my book is really not a point in its favor, but whatever. You can definitely see some residual James Wan influence here (Wanfluence?), mostly in the form of the aforementioned jumpy-outy ghosts. I appreciate that it tries hard to be smart, with a set of (somewhat arbitrary) rules that it lays out clearly and mostly sticks with until the end. But there are far too many jump-scares and over-the-top ghosts (bloody toothless smiles, glowing eyes, etc.–the undead equivalent of a vuvuzela). If you enjoy movies like the ridiculously-spelled Thir13en Ghosts (how does one even pronounce that?) or, indeed, Insidious–in which case, I’m afraid we can’t be friends–then you might find something to like here. Otherwise, wait until it’s on Netflix.