Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Although it’s more fresh than original, “Oculus” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a subtle but spooky supernatural saga. This creepy, complicated, psychological horror chiller casts an ordinary, everyday piece of household furniture as the source of all Evil. You may have one in your home, office, and/or car. Horror thrillers have appropriated virtually everything inanimate and transformed them—houses, cars, beds, bulldozers, condoms, toys, etc.--into murderous machines. The addition of mirrors should surprise nobody. This notorious object has been killing people as well as their pets for centuries with nobody the wiser about it. Actually, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has employed mirrors other than to offer the latest updates as in Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The Karen Black nail-biter “Mirror Mirror” (1990) represented an early example of evil mirror melodramas. A high school teenage girl summoned ghostly energy from a mirror to deal with obnoxious girls bullying her. Later, the Kiefer Sutherland thriller “Mirrors” (2008) appropriated mirrors with ghostly powers. Basically, there are three kinds of evil mirror movies. First, the owner of the mirror calls the shots. Second, the mirror from Hell takes everything back to Hell. Third, the mirror adopts other corporeal characteristics. In other words, the mirror shape-shifts into man or beast and leaves the wall where it is hanging on to create terror. Mind you, the malevolent mirror in “Oculus” doesn’t kill its victims by shape-shifting into something larger. Here, we have an evil as impassive as it is impersonal. In fact, the mirror does nothing but hang on the wall. Gaze into this wicked mirror, and you’re not going to be the same! The mirror exerts an eerie effect on individuals. Everything turns into something else. After you peer into this mirror, you find it difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Nothing in “Oculus” is what it seems!
“Absentia” director Mike Flanagan and co-scenarist Jeff Howard generate more than enough dread despite their preposterous but audacious premise. “Oculus” contains scenes that will make the hair on the nape of your neck and forearms levitate. Unmistakably, the setting and the storyline give away the film’s modest $5 million budget. Flanagan and Howard confine the mayhem primarily to the confines of a suburban residence with some exterior jaunts to various, peripheral locations. More importantly, Flanagan and Howard forge sympathetic characters in the crucible of this mesmerizing melodrama who maintain our interest throughout its 105 minute running time. The leads are attractive, and we want them to succeed in their cosmic battle between Good and Evil. Compared with mega-budgeted horror pictures, “Oculus” appears minor in many respects. Nothing in the form of either savage beasts or exotic creatures emerges from the mirror to eviscerate our hero and heroine. Indeed, some abhorrent things occur, but nothing that will afflict you with nightmares. You’ll be able to sleep with your lights off after dark. This unsettling, R-rated saga doesn’t wallow in blood and gore. Flanagan creates terror in your mind without crossing the line with gutsy, gross-out, gore moments. Make no mistake, people are slashed and bled, but “Oculus” is neither “Alien” nor “Predator.” Ultimately, despite its small-budget, low-wattage cast, and nominal gore effects, “Oculus” makes the grade because we care about the protagonists—two siblings--who set out to expose that infamous mirror as a mass murderer!
“Oculus” combines characteristics of haunted house movies (think “The Shining” and “The Amityville Horror”) with found footage flicks, such as “The Blair Witch Project” and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. Most of the action occurs in a single house where two siblings, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites of “Blue Lagoon: The Awakening”) and Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan of the BBC’s “Doctor Who”), grew up together and witnessed the deaths of their mother and father. Flanagan complicates this chronicle by presenting not only a contemporary story line about the siblings as adults, but also as adolescents in an alternate flashback, so we experience what they saw in their youth. Essentially, Tim saw his father kill his mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff of “Riddick”) so he shot his father Alan (Rory Cochrane of “Dazed and Confused”) and killed him. Since the incident, Tim has spent ten years in a psychiatric hospital recuperating from the nightmare. Since he has just turned age twenty-one, Tim is released because the doctors don’t believe he constitutes a threat. Meanwhile, Tim’s obsessive sister, Kaylie, who is two years older, has been working at an art auction house. She picks Tim up after he is discharged, but he refuses to stay with Kaylie and her fiancé, Michael Dumont (James Lafferty of (“S. Darko”), who works with her at the auction house. Instead, Tim prefers to chill out in a motel. Later, Tim learns that Kaylie has obtained the opulent 400-year old mirror that once graced their father's office. Furthermore, she has taken it back to the house where their parents died and placed it in the same room! If this weren’t enough, Kaylie has assembled a sophisticated array of gadgetry, including video cameras, sound detection equipment, and temperature monitors. She behaves like one of the “Ghostbusters” but with a straight face. She is determined to prove that Evil lurks in the mirror and brought about tragic consequences not only for her family but also others, too. In this respect, “Oculus” resembles a found footage flick. She believes that she can expose Evil and destroy it with one striking blow. Unfortunately, the chief problem with “Oculus” is that we never learn what prompted the antique mirror to embark on its reign of evil and what lies behind it.
The performances are good. Karen Gillan is especially forthright in her naivety that she can defeat Evil. Brenton Thwaites is almost as good as her cautionary little brother. Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff make a believable couple. Incredibly enough, Annelise Basso of “The Red Road” and Garrett Ryan of “The Millers” are terrific as their adolescent counterparts. The pacing is even, but you may jump occasionally at some sudden visual revelation. As it turns out, Flanagan expanded “Oculus” from his half-hour short film “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man with the Plan.” “Oculus” qualifies as an above-average reflection about terror.