Oculus (2014) - SERIOUS SPOILERS IN THIS ENTRY! At twelve dollar a film I am often disappointed when I go to the theater. It could be picking the wrong films plays a part or it could be that most films are just mediocre. Most times though there sitting in the dark there is a sinking feeling that the film on the screen will be in a discount bin or queue in six months. It may be that theaters are so oriented towards big budget films that we just don't see the creative independent films that blow our minds. Small venue viewing like the ones held at the Somerville Theater by All things Horror tend to be where I am seeing the cool stuff. The full priced theater tends to just leave me a bit empty an so it is always with reluctance that this is where I want to see a movie. An exception had to be made this week for Oculus by Mike Flanagan. ( I probably should have gone to see the Conjuring in theaters but never did. So with a bit of hope that my pattern would be broken my daughter and I ponied up our cache and headed in to see Oculus.
Flanagan got a recommendation from this blog for his cool monster flick Absentia (2011) so I was really looking forward to see what he could do with a bigger budget. I thought at that time that this was a very creative film maker with potential and really the criticism I had for that first film was he just did not have the funds to make it as good as it could have been. This is not a problem with Oculus. I wanted to also see and write about this film before I started hearing and seeing reviews for it. I am sure I will probably pick up on many of the same things any reviewers will but I wanted to do this review clean before getting any ideas from anywhere else.
Oculus is a very cleverly written film and the editing is even more clever. Shifting between the past and the present in such a fluid way it tells two tales at once centering around an antique mirror. Whether that mirror is haunted or not I will leave for later, the characters think it is and that is what matters for the plot. The film tells the story of sibling Kaylie and Tim Russell in the past and in the present. In the past we see the 12 year old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10 year old Tim (Garrett Ryan) as they move into a new house with their parents Marie (Katee Sackoff) and Alan (Rory Cochrane). Then things go horrible wrong in the house and Alan kills Marie and when going after the kids is killed by young Tim.
In the present Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from mental health treatment at the age of 21 and is met by his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). She over the years in foster care has grown into an obsessed young woman. Obsessed with the mirror she believes is the root of the past horrors. Having hunted it down and researched its history she is convinced it feeds on life. Killing plants around it, making pets vanish, and taking over the will of people around it to kill those they love. She has a plan to document and then destroy the mirror. Her brother having recognized through therapy all the ways the past could be misremembered is reluctant to help but family bonds are strong and soon the two are back in the house their parents died in and are playing out a plan.
The writing in this film is very smart and I appreciated it. The scenes in the past are viewed from the point of view of the children. Traumatized by arguing parents who grow increasingly more dysfunctional we get to feel their pain as thing spiral out of control. Kaylie the older of the two sees a supernatural entity in the mirror in the fathers office and feels it is influencing him towards violence. Really the clever part is whether there is or isn't anything other than fucked up parents and psychologically damaged children. Sure we see the other worldly beings as the audience but it is completely through the memories of the siblings. Having worked in mental health for many years it seems possible that it is Kaylie who is misremembering the past and that the trauma of the murders has created a psychotic break for her. This would explain her needs to deal with the mirror. Tim is a voice of reason trying to explain how things could have gotten confused but she is so determined that he seems to lose this argument. She is convince that therapy has brainwashed him into explaining all the magic away from what happened. He being influenced by her in the past easily falls under her spell again in adulthood. Playing with the line between real and unreal is such a strength of this film. The absolutely complicated system that Kaylie comes up with to fool the mirror and hopefully destroy it could be viewed as a bit crazy but she is so convincing in her evidence that we and the brother must at least hope for her sake that it has credence.
If there is a weakness in the film it is the blatant setup for a sequel but considering how well done this film is I can only hope that the studio throws a bunch more money at Flanagan and he gets to do even more good work. This film is very much recommended by this blog. Go see it in theaters and hope for more.