Hello again! You must be hungry (to the mirror).– Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell
This is by far one of the best horror films that this pilgrim has watched and that’s saying a lot since the mountain-man has watched plenty. Don’t take my word for it, check out the archives
In the wake of a few genre-bending horror films (an article has been published, here, where you may find names of such films), comes along Oculus; crawling at you from everywhere yet nowhere.
What would you like? A film playing on multiple mental and temporal levels? A haunted mirror, just like the one we’ve seen so many times before in films, and being handled this once by Mike Flanagan (Hush, 2016) in his own unique, silent as a grave way; like never before? TV celebs in a Flanagan film, rising well above the level-field of television and straight into the spine-tingling territory of a horror outing, just by the exchange of dialogues, ideas, foreboding instead of running scared, screaming making a lot of noise to suppress the glaring tropes of a haunted house parable? Well, guess what, you don’t have to look too far; Oculus offers all of that and then some and ends with an inevitable final cheat, designed to allow for a shocker ending; an ending that demands that there be a sequel. However, unfortunately, or not, that part never ever happened.
If all that is right up your alley, then this is a film for you, and even if it isn’t, Oculus scares pretty conclusively, the prize is worth it. So sit back, let director Flanagan take your hand and lead you through this nimble, kinetic, ultra-dark horror-rampage, through its gleefully wicked story, which opens much like what Mom and Dad, 2017 is based on, minus the satire and Nicolas Cage, and letting the haunted object hallucination (to kill, just bloody well kill, everyone, everything, anyone, anything) crank the dial on creative aggression all the way to eleven, albeit not before tying mama with chains to the wall, like an animal.
Even though released as part of the postmodern horror genre, whose intention is to shock rather than to let the terror grow and climb the wall like the wisteria creeper, and awn upon everyone within a 100-meter radius, Oculus takes this less traveled road and expertly fulfills what it sets out to accomplish.
Tie your mother down Tie your mother down Lock your daddy out of doors I don't need him nosin' around Tie your mother down Tie your mother down Give me all your love tonight - Queen - Tie Your Mother Down
With the first, introductory act, heavily inebriated by In Cold Blood, 1967 (pub: 1965 by Truman Capote), the film narrates a surrealist encounter, hideously exciting melodrama, mayhem, scenes that seem to shatter like glass in the viewers’ faces (or the mouth), kindling the antique horror fire so much that it just might burn the whole shit house down, but then we’re only getting familiarized with the haunted house premise (again); not just any haunted house, but a haunted house with a siren for a poltergeist, Marisol Chavez (Kate Siegel) coming out of the mirror to take you in her arousing caress and let the affairs of Room 237 (or 217) take over the wheel.
The fundamentals being laid are so damn intense, it leaves two young siblings separated with one being taken straight to the psychiatric hospital, after being jolted into submission with the rest of the audience (not a cheap gimmick like, perhaps, the Paranormal Activity series to Insidious: The Last Key, 2018 and The Conjuring 2, 2016). Fine, I said, another, a clone – I said childhood disrupted with the arrival of a mirror into the claustrophobic study where their father Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) worked alone, just like how it was in The Devil’s Candy, 2015, or maybe I didn’t and only thought of it. However, we have certainly, been there – felt that. For instance The Possession of Hannah Grace (Cadaver), 2018, and The Babadook, 2014 to name just one from a stack of hundreds.
In Oculus the first thing that gets to us is the atmosphere of pristine ruination build upon complete annihilation of the senses and then the self, like the wooden chest bang in the center of the room in Hitchcock‘s Rope, 1948, with the resolution lying in plain sight throughout the film based on the real-life murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold (19 years old, then) and Richard Loeb (eighteen).
Playing tricks on its two would-be victims’ minds, like Rope, Oculus turns the brittle nature of consciousness into a better fear tactic than any visceral shocks could ever possibly elicit, although at the expense of becoming handicapped by relentlessly clichéd dialogue, which comes with the territory. The conversations between the brother and sister duo, Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell, played with callow brilliance by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites and lavender dandyism with moral idiocy and pitiless horror; the film is a tightly enacted chamber drama that is messing with them (and us) at every turn. Further, even when completely isolated and occupied with a certain thought process and under the skilled direction of Flanagan, the film serves to heighten the atmosphere of mounting suspense and impelling suspicion.
Having said that, the film intrigued me by its references to other higher ranking films. The way Flanagan, his team and the characters who we feel about, put on an act for us where the specifics of the scenario incite a fundamental state of dread that grows heavier with each murky twist. Plus, the element of memory-making statements is something that Oculus could not have done without, or any other horror film, for that matter. False memories derived from inaccurate associations to completely deny paranormal activity – that’s how scared Tim is (that’s how scared every horror director wants his audience to get) and Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari set up their movie such that the scares emanate from every phone call, every recording from the camcorder, that may not be accurate; information that makes you distrust the film establishing a menacing supernatural presence, which remains hard to define throughout the two-pronged progression of unreliable narrators.
Even going to the extent of accepting the suggestion of a history of mental illness in the family, only to not having to believe in something this supernaturally sinister. This makes us question the reality of the film (when Kaylie bites into an apple), how we process that reality; and Oculus masterfully realizes and benefits from that intrinsic factor (trust) of watching films, where horror is at once deceptive and rooted in a deep, primal self-consciousness.
And one must be circumspect while the film unravels – sometimes leaving the keen viewer right where he belongs; at the edge of the seat.
A truly contemporary horror movie, Oculus is well-acted, well-directed and it scares. It is as formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, and it connects the performers and behind the camera crew in service of a darkly satisfying horror picture. Plus this film just upped the ante of the haunted house/object genre, with a mirror, just a fancy mirror, increasing the insecurity and becoming a metaphor for the genre’s lasting potency.
The mirror can be seen in Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep, 2019. Something made him take it to the sets of Sleep. I don’t suppose that is healthy, neither is it a good idea. The framed photograph dated (Overlook Hotel, July 4th Ball), 1921 is enough, not the mirror, please.
This one’s a simple must-watch.
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