Movie Review: “Oculus” (Mike Flanagan, USA 2013)

Horror movies are often fascinating socio-political objects, particularly the less artistically-minded, more commercial ones. Stanley Kubrick saying that we needed to be careful not to hold onto the past so tightly that it swallows us whole was interesting (And The Shining [Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980] was perhaps the greatest horror film ever made–Stephen King’s lunatic criticisms be damned.), but it wasn’t necessarily indicative of some popular zeitgeist. Saw (James Wan, USA/Australia 2004), meanwhile, while nowhere near as artistically successful, was indicative of the central moral-political divide in the United States–worrying about the possibility of replacing a “traditional” moral code with a new one that has its own logic but terrifying results. And since the fears horror films are playing off of are worn on the movies’ sleeves, so to speak, their points are often clear and unmistakable, which also makes them rather easy to analyze, at least in the bizarro way that I look at films.

Oculus is a cursed object story about a life-swallowing demon mirror–that’s obvious from the poster. (Actually, it’s obvious from the title.) So, what does that say that we’re afraid of? Mirrors are symbols of vanity, of the past or looking behind us, or sometimes even of clarity and truth, so there are lots of directions to go.

The more specific plot details may give us some insight: Tim Russell has just been released from 11 years in a psychiatric institution after killing his father who had just tortured and murdered his mother. Tim meets up with his sister, who says that the memories he once had of that time, when he believed that the demonic mirror drove him to his actions, are actually the truth and what the psychiatrists have now taught him is nonsense. She sets about proving the evil of the mirror before destroying it, apparently only with the motive of proving wrong everyone who ever looked at her cross-eyed because of her crazy story. Okay, so now we know that one of the lead characters is a typically stupid horror movie lead. And we can see what Oculus thinks we should be afraid of: not being able to define reality.

The problem is that this film just doesn’t really stick to making that point. It’s so concerned with its telegraphed jump scares and all-too-predictable storyline that it loses itself in those elements, forgetting what it’s actually about. Anyone who has read my reviews before knows that is essentially the cardinal sin of filmmaking for me, and this film was as guilty of it as any.

On the bright side, Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari actually seem to have some new ideas–there are camera angles and filters that just don’t tend to appear in modern horror films, like the odd sideways bed shot of Alan and Marie. However, they seem to be doing them for no real reason, and they also fall into their fair share of conventions, whether it’s the cool blue color scheme or the repeated use of doors as screen wipes to move between the past and the present. Overall, the film is okay visually, but nothing special, and its visual language is hampered by the script’s inability to stay on message.

I was trepidatious about seeing Karen Gillan in another role. I loved Amy Pond so much, but I also could see that the former model was, well, a non-actor. She improved a great deal over the course of her run on Doctor Who, to the point that some critics even praised her work in “The Girl Who Waited” (I thought they were crazy, but I seem to be in a minority.) in season six, where she was actually counted on to carry the show emotionally for an hour. It turns out that there was no need to worry, because (a) Flanagan gave her a character who was essentially a more extreme version of Amy Pond and (b) he didn’t give her too much to do. Amy’s defining features were her bravery (Well, and her sarcasm–Sarcasm is cool!) and loyalty, and Kaylie Russell shares those qualities. In fact, she even takes the loyalty to such an extreme that she cannot betray even her own ideas from childhood. As a result, she only has to show a smug self-satisfaction for the first hour followed by fear for the last 45 minutes–she doesn’t have to portray anything any more complex or any other emotions. They don’t ask too much of her, but she does what they give her just fine.

And Kaylie is clearly the most well-defined and deepest character in the film, so no one else has to do much of anything. Katee Sackhoff is forced to play a character supernaturally and suddenly driven insane and so is over-the-top and cartoonish, but that’s the script’s fault rather than hers. No one really stands out in either direction, because there isn’t a way for them to do so.

The Newton Brothers provide a completely conventional modern horror score–nothing interesting to note here. Much of the film is done without a score, seemingly attempting to use silence by itself as a tension-making device, an idea that just doesn’t work without some other efforts. I suggest that Flanagan try watching the Breaking Bad episode “Box Cutter” sometime and learn how suspense works.

Overall, Oculus is forgettable. It’s not really any worse than the typical commercial horror film, but it’s not any better either. It has some interesting visual ideas and a charismatic star, but it doesn’t know its point and doesn’t know how to use tension or suspense to make its jump scares powerful.

Notes

  • Annalise Basso, who previously appeared on both Lie to Me and Parks and Recreation, looks nothing like Karen Gillan. Just having red hair doesn’t make you look like Karen Gillan. Stephen Moffat didn’t seem to understand that, and apparently neither does Flanagan.
  • If the mirror just needs to suck the life out of things and it’s capable of just eating living things like it does to the dog and the plants, why does it go through the song and dance it does with these people? It seems to be an artistically-motivated mirror, which is more terrifying than intended . . .
  • If the plants die when it eats their life force, so to speak, why does the dog just disappear?
  • She says it will get stronger as it goes and has seen the mirror affect people throughout the same house before, but Kaylie decides that the mirror’s sphere of influence ends where the last dead plant is?
  • The light bulb eating scene, as obvious as it was, was still painful. I wanted to go to a dentist waiting for that scene to end.
  • Am I the only one who thought the first time that we saw Kaylie see the Woman that it seemed to be Marie? Was it? Of course, it makes perfect sense for it to be or not to be . . . because the mirror can apparently do anything it wants at any time but just doesn’t for no apparent reason . . .
  • Marie should have raised the obvious complaint about the mirror: it’s butt-ugly. Maybe he would have listened and this whole story would never have occurred.
  • In Kaylie’s timeline, the mirror seems to take an awful lot of time off between its kills at some times, and yet she seems remarkably unperturbed by that fact.
  • Seriously, why didn’t she just destroy it? The reasoning she gives is so flimsy.
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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: “Oculus” (Mike Flanagan, USA 2013)

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014) | Crowd of Full Pockets

  2. Pingback: The Best of Doctor Who: No. 1, “Blink” (03.11, 2007) | Crowd of Full Pockets

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