Friday, April 18, 2014

OCULUS Is Solid Horror Film With Admirable Ambition

OCULUS Review:

- I'm really digging the new wave of throwback horror cinema. After a glut of torture-porn garbage over the last several years, it's cool that horror is getting back to the things that make me a fan of the genre: clever ideas, unexpected twists, creepy atmosphere, and an emphasis on having fun with the trappings of the genre. I give Oculus credit: it's got an uber-clever structure, and a knack for throwing creepy, eye-popping imagery at you that you won't soon forget. At the same time, the movie tries, perhaps, to be a little too clever for its own good. It's so focused on wowing you with its time-jumping plot-line that it doesn't always take the time to properly explore the motivations of its characters, or to make sure that all the details of the story properly add up. Still, with a likable cast and some fun ideas, this one is worth a look if you're a horror fan.

OCULUS is all about a haunted mirror that seriously %&#*s with you. Okay, that's simplifying things a bit, but that's the premise at its core. Part of the film takes place twelve years ago, when a young family moves into a new home, not realizing that one of their new pieces of furniture is in fact some sort of demonic hell-mirror. The dad, Alan (Rory Cochrane) - a software developer - places the creepy, ornately-carved mirror in his home office, unaware of the slowly-worsening effect its having on him. He starts acting distant, forgetful, seeing things that aren't there. His kids begin to see a strange woman in the office with him, even though he doesn't know who they're referring to when they ask about her. Soon, the madness that's infecting Alan spreads to his wife, Marie (Katee Sackhoff). She becomes paranoid, then sick, then unstable and even dangerous to herself and others. Something is seriously wrong. As we learn more about what happened to the family twelve years ago, the movie intercuts with the present day. The two kids, Kaylie and Tim, are now in their twenties (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites play the older versions). Tim just turned 21, and he's been released from his long stay at a mental ward. Kaylie's been waiting for him. For years, she's been plotting and planning to re-acquire the old mirror - which she is now convinced was the root of her family's suffering - and destroy it once and for all. The mirror, she's learned, has a sordid history that dates back centuries. Now, she recruits her brother in an elaborate scheme to destroy it, and to end the hold it has over their lives.

The film does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of creeping dread, and director Mike Flanagan really shows a knack for creepy imagery and claustrophobic foreboding. Particularly in the flashback scenes, there is a great sense that we're watching a picture-perfect family's descent into darkness, unfolding in a way that's mesmerizing and scary. Helped by a droning, ominous score, the flashback scenes are particularly effective at establishing the power of the mirror. It really messes with you, making you question if what you're seeing is real, and heightening existing, internalized paranoia into externalized outbursts and incidents. Cochrane and Sackhoff are both quite good as the falling-over-the-edge parents, and both impressed me with how they morphed from amiable, likable characters into total psychos over the course of the film. I was also impressed with the two kid actors who play Kaylie and Tim in the flashbacks. Annalise Basso, who plays young Kaylie, might be the most impressive actor in the film. She does a fantastic job, both when she's called upon to be terrified, and when she shows great courage in the face of insane circumstances.

The movie loses a bit of momentum in the present-day scenes. I like Gillan, but I didn't love her character here. As the 23-year-old Kaylie, Gillan plays the quick-witted, thinks-of-everything hero who is determined to destroy the object that plagued her family years ago. But I never felt like the movie sufficiently explained why Kaylie was so intent on carrying out this seemingly-doomed mission to destroy the mirror. Why not just stay far, far away from it? Her motivation to proactively seek it out - and to involve her clearly damaged brother in her plans - felt a little vaguely penciled-in to me. I also don't know that the movie sufficiently explains Kaylie's big plan of action. It seems to take a lot of pleasure in showing us her elaborately-conceived set up, designed to monitor and record the effects the mirror is having on her and the house in which it resides. But what's the endgame of all the MacGuyver-esque planning? Again, the movie seems a little too smugly satisfied in the cute quirks of Kaylie's plotting (she's set a loud buzzer to remind her and her brother to hydrate), and a little too unconcerned with how this all adds up to a satisfying whole.

So OCULUS ends up being a movie with a number of clever, visually-cool, memorable moments ... but also stretches where you sort of tune out, because those moments don't seem to be adding up to much. The film is very inventive in how it weaves together its two timelines, and the slick editing deserves mention. It's rare to see past and present scenarios in a film woven together so elegantly, with parallels between what happens in each time period drawn in a sharp, powerful manner. I can only imagine that the scene-by-scene script outline of this film is quite the impressive document. But clever structure can only take you so far. As much as I admire the way that OCULUS changes up the usual horror format and ambitiously weaves back and forth between decades, there's ultimately no great "aha!" moment that 100% justifies the twisty narrative. All the while, more fundamental things like character motivations (why is Kaylie so hellbent on finding and destroying the mirror?), world-building (what exactly is the mirror's M.O.? How did it come to be?), and plot details (how does Kaylie hope to destroy the mirror) get a bit of the ol' short shrift.

Still, there's enough cool stuff in OCULUS - fun creep-outs, creepy atmosphere - that you can't help but admire what it's going for. And hey, it's nice to see fan-favorites like Sackhoff get this sort of meaty role, that really calls for her to stretch and play outside of her usual badass persona. Even if OCULUS didn't completely wow me, it is definitely the sort of thoughtful, atmospheric horror film I'd like to see more of.

My Grade: B

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