Sunday, 15 June 2014

Oculus (US, 2014)

An unhappy childhood

My name is Kaylie Ann Russell. The purpose of today's experiment is to prove the object behind me is responsible for at least 45 deaths in the four centuries of its recorded existence.

Director Mike Flanagan gives literal meaning to “being haunted by your childhood” in his latest chiller, in which a pair of siblings revisit the vengeful mirror that helped their unhappy family to destroy itself.


There are two types of horror films: those that just care about the gore and those that want to use horror to play out real life themes. The advantage of the latter is that you still get to have pretty scary stuff in your movie, but at the end of it all you have a narrative to cling to. Oculus wants to be in the latter category, and makes a pretty good fist of it. Read on for a dissection of the film’s scares and main themes (some spoilery stuff at the bottom but well sign-posted).

Genre: Horror | Director: Louis Mireles | WritersMike Flanagan & Jeff Howard ActorsKaren Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff | Cinematographer: Michael Fimognari | StudioBlumhouse Productions, WWE Studios, Intrepid Pictures ProducersMarc D. Evans & Trevor Macy.

One sentence description: Two siblings do battle against an indestructible mirror that killed their parents.
One (long) sentence review: An excellent chiller with reasonably subtle scares and strong narrative (for a horror, anyway)
Watch it if…You like haunted house or horror films.
Don’t watch it if…You like more crash-bang-wallop haunted house stories. 
Best thing about the film…The children's acting.

There are two timelines, one in which we follow a family with young children and another in which we follow two twentysomething orphans about to embark on something with trepidation.

It turns out the latter are the grown-up children Tim and Kaylie from the older storyline, and Kaylie believes the presence of a haunted mirror resulted in the deaths of their parents. According to Kaylie, the mirror drove their father insane, leading him to kill their mother, and in the ensuing commotion, Tim took the chance to kill his father. For their efforts, Kaylie was sent to a foster home and Tim to juvenile detention.

We catch up with the grown-up children once Tim gets released from jail and travels to their old house, where Kaylie has set up the mirror and an elaborate infrastructure to provoke the mirror and record the experience. What follows is Kaylie’s attempt to prove that the mirror is haunted and thus clear her brother but also their parents’ names. We also follow the older timeline, watching the parents’ marriage disintegrate into bickering and mistrust, culminating in their deaths.

THE REVIEW - general
The family horror genre has been filled recently by a spate of good and bad films, with ‘Insidious’, ‘Sinister’, ‘Mama’ and ‘The Conjuring’ being the pick of the lot. This is fertile territory for horror films, as we are all haunted by our childhoods in one way or another: our fears, hopes and psychoses tend to have their origins there. In fact, the further we get from our childhood, the more dreamlike it appears and we begin to wonder about our interpretation of events. It is this space that is exploited by Oculus. Are we remembering correctly? Did we see what adults wanted us to see? Is seeing believing?

I was quite impressed with this film because, although it used some hackneyed effects (more below), it provided both the ‘scare quota’ and a deeper story underneath. The story isn’t explored like it would be in a drama and the mythology of the mirror is skipped over quite quickly, but Oculus knows what it is: a film about malevolent spirits. Almost all the action takes place inside the house, giving it a highly claustrophobic feeling, coupled with the fact that most of the time, there are only two characters in the frame.

What marks this out against most horror films is that the scares don’t come from some ‘being’ in the house, but a ‘thing’ that can control people’s perception of things: so an apple becomes a lightbulb and a bandage on a finger seemingly disappears. As you can imagine, it wreaks havoc in quite subtle but still destructive ways. There are no double-takes of a ghost, no analysis of a picture with a ghost hidden somewhere in it, no demonic chanting (some incomprehensible whispering though), just a stationary object in a room that turns the children’s world upside down.

What would’ve been interesting is if it was explained that the mirror ended up in ‘broken’ households and was simply holding up a reflection of the people living with it. However, the set-up explains only the way the previous owners died, which is ‘gorefest’ territory. The mirror originated in Leicester, England, and worked its way into the US via a pastor. We do get to see some great death-scene photos (I’m slightly surprised she was able to get pictures from all the scenes, but what the hey).

One of the intriguing elements of the film is the meticulous preparation done by Kaylie (Scottish actress Karen Gillen) in order to document the event and “put a loaded gun” to the mirror’s ‘head’, thus forcing it to fight back and reveal itself. And reveal itself it does, particularly in trying to use the swinging axe set up by Kaylie against her and Tim. I couldn’t help thinking how useful she would be in the Final Destination franchise…

The schlubby father figure (Rory Cochrane) seems to be under pressure for reasons never explained, but it may be something to do with the fact that he’s a software engineer in 2002, just a year or so after the ‘tech crash’. What happens to Marie (the mother, played by Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) seems a little less explicable, but did serve to give add a dimension to the horror element. There is the hint of a jealous woman in the mirror trying to take Marie’s husband away from her.

The child artists Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are absolutely excellent in their portrayal of real peril and I would say in acting terms, this is easily the best horror film I’ve seen in quite some time.

The film is very light on special effects and relies much more on psychological scares, which has allowed it to be made for a measly $5m. Having raked in more than $30m globally, it is already a huge commercial success and given the ending, has great potential for sequels. If you like horror films at all, I urge you to go see it.

Ghostly creatures with shining eyes, clammy skin and massive eyebags? Check. People staring off into space? Check. Self mutilation? Check. This film has most of the clichés that horror films have, so why, then, does this film feel so fresh? Well, for a start, you don’t get the protagonists splitting up to “investigate” and then getting picked off one by one.

The scares tend to come from dread rather than outright “bumps in the night”. The problem with most ghost stories is that they depend too much on a character suddenly turning round to be faced by a ghost. In this film, you do get odd moments like that, but the ‘meat’ of it is in seeing the psychological effects the mirror has on the human around it. It is almost a living, breathing creature that defends itself and stores within it the malevolence it has seen.

Basically, the mirror is a ‘killing force’ that manifests itself in the killing of plants within a certain radius, but its key power is controlling people’s minds and making them see what it wants them to see, which culminated in the final set piece of the film. But in Kaylie, the mirror has a formidable and well-practised opponent. Who will win?

In terms of horror films that have pedigree in developing characters and larger themes, we often think of The Shining (1980) or The Exorcist (1973). Further back, you’ve got Polanski’s films like Repulsion (1965) or Rosemary’s Baby (1968), both of which chart a woman’s descent into insanity. These films take the time to set up a city, a family and a situation.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t quite that, in that it occupies a place between Sinister (2012) and Repulsion. What it does do, however, is spend just enough time telling the parents’ story that we’re reassured and understand why the children are where they are. The main themes in this film are the parents’ unhappy marriage and the Tim and Kaylie’s destroyed childhood.

There is the hint of infidelity with the father, and although the children talk of it being with the “woman in the mirror”, you wonder if there was one in reality, as Alan (the dad) was often out a little late and the mother grew increasingly paranoid.

What is particularly well done is the moments when Kaylie and Tim reminisce back to their childhood, remembering something lost in time. You almost forget that this is a horror film for a few moments, which makes the subsequent horror shots particularly strong. Underlying all this is the feeling that a family was torn apart by a tremendously malevolent force and the look on Kaylie’s face when Tim almost convinces her to let go of her ‘experiment’ shows you all the anguish those two went under
While Tim spends most of the film being open-mouthed and disbelieving, Kaylie has the air of a paranoid and somewhat mentally unstable ideologue, but this is a horror film, so we know the paranoid one is always the ‘right’ one.

All in all, Oculus is a fairly intelligent horror film with a good contextualised narrative, strong acting and a powerful central ‘evil’. A hearty recommendation.


No comments: