Oculus (2014)

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Earlier, I reviewed director Mike Flanagan’s odd and wonderful Absentia. I was utterly taken by the film’s bold, fresh take on suburban horror, which cast aside your standard horror themes by making a monster out of a little underpass in a perfectly nice neighborhood.

With Oculus, Flanagan proves once again he can make inanimate objects as creepy as hell. The villain in this film is a large antique mirror, reacquired at an auction by Kaylie Russell because she just KNOWS it had something to do with the bizarre murder-suicide that took her parents eleven years ago. Kaylie’s brother, Tim, has just been released from a psychiatric facility, and the two team up to fulfill a pact they made when they were kids: To meet back up as adults and confront this thing, once and for all.

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But first, Kaylie wants some kind of proof of the mirror’s supernatural power. So she hauls it back to the scene of the crime in the office of their childhood home (conveniently untouched for the past 11 years) and promptly turns the room into an Apple Store. The mirror faces desks with Macbooks and iMacs sensing temperature and recording video through three cameras trained on the scene, alongside a variety of alarms and failsafes in an attempt the thwart the mirror’s usual tricks. Needless to say, this proves more difficult than she imagined.

Russell cleverly toys with our sense of reality in interesting ways as the plot progresses. Just as Kaylie and Tim realize the mirror can control what they see through their very eyes, so we are not entirely sure what to trust as the night gets more intense.

The backstory is told through a series of flashbacks that the characters themselves experience while they plod around this house haunted with so many intense memories from a decade ago. These flashbacks knit ever more tightly with hallucinations and the current proceedings until they almost meld into one and the same. At some point, one begins to wonder how much of this the mirror is actually controlling, and how much of it is generated by the kids’ minds.

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That’s not to say cliches don’t pop up here and there, alongside a few gaping plot holes, but what are you going to do. In the hands of a less accomplished director, all this could get tedious. Instead, I found the tension and suspense almost unbearable – certainly more effective than if it were plotted in a more straightforward fashion. It’s a wholly original twist on your haunted object story that captured my interest from the beginning and thrilled me throughout.

I do like the idea that ghosts can toy with modern technology just as easily as flickering a light bulb or sliding a book across the room. It just makes sense, and it’s a nice reversal of the “scientific haunting investigation” where camera footage is taken as infallible proof of the truth. That said, it’s hard to tell if the mirror is messing with the technology itself or with Kaylie’s and Tim’s perceptions when they use those devices.

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You’ll recognize a few of these actors from film and tv. Karen Gillan recently played Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Brenton Thwaites has been in Maleficent and apparently will star in the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean film.  Katee Sackhoff (the mother) is all over TV, as is Rory Cochrane who you might recognize from CSI: Miami.

But the real actors in this film are the kid versions of Kaylie and Tim, convincingly played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Seriously, these kids are jaw-droppingly good. Their terror is real, and so was mine.

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If you’re interested in a taste of what this film had to offer without actually watching it, the equally clever and powerful short it was based on is up on YouTube right here.

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Now that you’ve seen the film…

********** SPOILER ALERT ***************

Kaylie and Tim should’ve closed up shop immediately after the whole camera-moving incident. They clearly weren’t ever going to be able to get any proof on film, but it buttoned up their own suspicions quite nicely regardless. So why didn’t they just leave for Waffle House, catch up on the past 11 years over hash browns and coffee, and let the kill switch do its thing?

I also have to go on record to say that the ending was top-notch. A “fizzle instead of a bang”? I have no idea what this guy’s problem is. I’m not sure we even saw the same movie.

Next on my list: Concoct a drinking game out of how many times people in this movie a) cut themselves, and b) get choked. The mirror certainly has its favorite methods, I guess.

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