OCULUS (2014)Directed by Mike Flanagan. With Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane.
A Film in the Dark
by Anthony Servante
Although I've included the summary above, it only superficially covers the plot, so allow me to review how I saw things. The movie begins with the final meeting between Tim Russell and his psychiatrist, played by Miguel Sandoval; Tim tells the doctor of his dream where he fires the gun that kills his father. Cut to the doctor telling the hospital board members that this dream is the breakthrough that he's been waiting for in his treatment and that Tim should be allowed to leave court-ordered medical custody, that he is no longer a menace to society. Tim is released and his sister, Kaylie, picks him up from the hospital.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to move in with her and her fiancee, Michael, Kaylie takes Tim to a cheap hotel room. This tension between the brother and sister is important to the storyline because Tim believes the version of events as he saw them in his dream, the version that convinces his doctor to release him from custody. He believes he has been cured of the false memories of that fatal night when his parents were killed, supposedly by him. But Kaylie insists to Tim that he made a promise, they both did, that they would never forget that night and how things really played out; they promised that when he was released from the hospital, that they would kill the entity that resides in the mirror.
One of the Mirror Inhabitants
At this point she tells her brother that she's located, purchased, and secured the mirror. She tells him that he needs to clear his head of the brainwashing that the hospital did on him, that they have work to do. This work includes placing the mirror in a secured room with video cameras to capture the mirror's actual moves, for the Lasser Glass, as it is known, can cause its victims to hallucinate as a defense mechanism. Thus, Kaylie has placed a giant springed weight that will come crashing into the mirror if its timer is not reset every twenty minutes. The mirror attacks its victims by siphoning their energy: dogs dehydrate to death, plants dry up, and, of course, the humans hallucinate (think mirages in the desert). With this set-up, it seems like the kids should finally get their revenge on the mirror; only, Tim still believes that it is just a mirror and that he actually committed the crimes he was hospitalized for and thinks his sister is the crazy one.
Preparing the Cameras
In one of the creepiest scenes of the movie, as the siblings argue about the mirror, Tim storms out of the room followed closely by his angry sister. But when they look back into the room with the mirror, they find all the cameras have been rearranged, poltergeist-style. Kaylie replays the video and as the siblings argue about the mirror, the playback shows them rearranging the cameras themselves. We, the movie audience, saw what they saw, an argument; so when we see the playback, we are just as surprised as they are. The crowd I was with gasped in shock. The mirror was protecting itself. Tim then realizes that his original memories, the ones before the doctor medically altered the way he remembered the events of that deadly night of his arrest, are the real ones. And then the flashbacks begin.
Tim and Kaylie Older and Younger Selves
The movie is a series of flashbacks focusing on the events leading up to that fatal night, interspersed with the events of the older siblings trying to trap the mirror into revealing its evil inhabitant. They bring a dog and dozens of plants to track the mirror's power to siphon energy from the living things to measure the growing length of its progressively parasitic capabilities. We watch how the mirror took over the family house when they were kids in flashbacks as we witness their plan for vengeance unfold in the present now. This is the set-up of the first half, and a fantastic one at that.
The Present and the Past Collide
But then there's that second hour (the movie clocks in at an hour and forty-five minutes). As the mirror gains more power from the siblings, the dog, and the plants, it begins to reveal itself, but like any good parasite, it has a great defense mechanism. It begins to defend itself even as Kaylie turns on more and more electronic gadgets around the house to stay one step ahead of the mirror. But soon the victims that the Lasser Glass has absorbed over the years (Kaylie gives a detailed account of the mirror's past) begin to leave the mirror and wander the house. And whenever the brother and sister are separate, usually in different rooms, where the hallucinations lead them, they are vulnerable. Soon, even the flashbacks come to life in the present now and the kids run into their older selves in the house, and vise-versa. The battle of the younger siblings has coalesced with the battle of their older selves with the same mirror in different time-lines.
The Mirror's Inhabitants Emerge
By this time, we should be shaking with fear for the two sets of siblings. Instead, we, the audience, are subjected to the same hallucinations as the brother and sister. It doesn't work. It is confusing. That scene with the playback showing how the mirror defends itself was crucial and should have be repeated throughout the movie to let the audience know what was real and what was the defensive hallucinations of the Lasser Glass. Only in the climatic finale do we see this "playback" device used again to show the strength and weakness of the mirror. We are lost in flashbacks, or are they hallucinations, and rather than care about the battle between the siblings and the mirror, we are trying to figure out what is real and what is not real. And we just give up.
Apple or Lightbulb?
For example, there is a great scene where fresh light bulbs are being placed in the strong lamps placed around the house as the mirror can drain the electrical power and toss the house into darkness when it suits its purposes. As Kaylie places the apple she's eating next to a burnt out bulb, she lifts the apple but bites into the lightbulb. Her mouth is filled with broken glass and blood. Tim enters the room and asks her what is wrong. Then she has the apple in her hand and her mouth is uncut. What? The mirror would have had her cut herself; it doesn't play pranks--it is malevolent, not tricky. Without any sense of evil, we figure the "horrors" happening to the siblings can be retracted at any time by the mirror, prankster that it is. And with the pranks and confusing flashbacks, the movie can't maintain the terrific set-up of the first half of the movie. There is no battle. It's a knockout for the mirror as soon as the fight begins.
The Purge: Anarchy
Last year, The Purge had a similar letdown, but I thought the political satire held together the slasher aspects of the film. With the advent of giving the fans what they want, The Purge: Anarchy promises to lean towards the gore and violence and let the political leanings play second fiddle. In Oculus, more gore and violence was needed to show the battle that was promised in the first half of the movie. Why show us all the technology when it disappears from the second half of the movie. The siblings are supposed defend themselves from the hallucinations, not the movie-goers.
Mother and Daughter
I really liked this movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie received a 78% critics approval rating, while the audience approval was about 50%, ironic when fans tend to rank higher with horror movies while critics are less wowed by the gimmicks of today's horror (found footage, alien abductions, maternal ghosts, and so on), but they took a shine to this use of flashbacks to double the thrills. I guess it takes a more cerebral mind to follow the logic of the second half of the movie. I wasn't up to the task. Maybe with multiple viewings, I'll see what that 78% saw.
The Fatal Night
As I left the theater, two women who had just seen the movie asked me what I thought. I said that the first half was great, but the second half fell apart. They responded, Good, then we saw the same movie. As for you, my readers, I do recommend this one, but pay extra close attention to that second half. And if you figure it out, let me know what I missed, because I think the Lasser Glass got the best of this critic with its defensive hallucinations.