Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Oculus: A Trick With Light and Mirrors

Oculus - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
The term oculus is a misnomer. An oculus is not a mirror, but a round or eyelike opening or design.  The film "Oculus" is just plain deceiving, but in a good way.  Like many recent horror films, the protagonists are a family under siege from a malevolent supernatural force.  Written and directed by Mike Flanagan (“Absentia”), "Oculus," is a suspenseful, scary horror film in the same vein as "Insidious," or "Sinister."  This latest offering from Blumhouse productions is about an ancient mirror that unleashes an evil force in the lives of a typical American family.  "Oculus" follows many of the horror genre tropes that have made Blumhouse productions a household name when it comes to modern family-horror.  Although not necessarily gory, "Oculus" is rated R for the violence and language.  Look for one hour and forty-five minutes of interesting, disturbing, and at times a confusing peek at your normal everyday family haunted by an ancient evil.

Our family, by the name of Russell, comprises of a self-employed software developer, a mom, a redheaded, pre-teen daughter, and a dark haired son who is about two years younger.  Rory Cochran, once a starring cast member of the now defunct "CSI Miami," plays Alan Russell,  the father, who 11 years previous, allegedly murdered his wife.  The doomed wife and mother, Marie, is played by Sci-Fi star Katee Sackhoff.  Widely known for her role on television's "Battlestar Galactica,” Sackhoff is no stranger to the horror genre.  In 2000, she was in "Halloween: Resurrection," and she started opposite of Nathan Fillion in "White Noise 2," and the more recent "Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia.”  New to American horror movie audiences, but not to "Dr. Who" fans, playing the now grown daughter of this family, is Karen Gillan while Annalise Basso playing the 12 year-old Kaylie.  Rounding off the cast, playing the 21-year-old Tim is Australian, Brenton Thwaites, and American actor Garrett Ryan plays his younger self. 

Oculus - Rory Cochran: Kill her!  | A Constantly Racing Mind

Now 21 years-old, Tim (Thwaites), is conversing with his psychiatrist, Dr. Shawn Graham played by "Medium" co-star Miguel Sandoval.  Tim has come to terms with demons and recognizes that he is responsible for shooting his father when he was 10 years-old.  His older sister Kaylie (Gillan) is another matter.  Over the past 11 years, Kaylie, was left to cope with the devastation that came to visit their family when their dad, bought an antique, almost grotesque, full-length mirror with an ornate wooden frame.  The mirror is over 300 years-old and once sat in Balmoral Castle in Scotland.  The mirror we are told, has had numerous owners who all have died horrible deaths.

Kaylie's fiancé Michael Dumont (James Lafferty - "One Tree Hill") runs an auction-house and Kaylie has throughout the years been tracking the mirror through its various owners and via the auction-house purchased the mirror on the same day that her brother is being released from the mental hospital as a "cured" individual.  The question of sanity is one that is not only asked by the audience to the characters and events in this film, but the audience may also ask that question of themselves as well.  Memory is a tricky thing, and looking back 11 years and trying to remember certain events in a certain way, is at best circumspect.

Oculus - Karen Gillan & Brenton Thwaites & the Mirror  | A Constantly Racing Mind

Setting up cameras and having a rigid plan, Kaylie and Tim venture to their old house where the gruesome death of their mother and their father's murder took place.  The goal is to somehow prove that the mirror is to blame for Alan's death and not Tim.  After carefully reviewing the history of all of the deaths that have been recorded throughout history in relationship to the mirror, Kaylie has a plan that includes hydration, check-ins by the fiancée, and tracking of paranormal activity with the use of plants. Gillan plays Kaylee with determination that is quite obsessive and believable. On the other hand Thwaites, is a little less convincing, but that changes closer to the end.

In telling this story, Flanagan chose to interweave scenes from the past as the two surviving children return to the house they once lived in.  The past unfolds like Stephan King’s "The Shinning," we see a father's quick descent into madness and followed very quickly by the moms, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.  The story is clever, as Kaylie has set up video cameras, à la "Paranormal Activity."  What happens in the house in one night is both predictable, and yet not.  Karen Gillan portrays Kaylie with a solid sense of purpose in defeating the thing in the mirror, and with the help of her brother, hoping show the world that her brother isn't a murderer, but killed their dad in self-defense.  I never got a sense of creepiness from Rory Cochran when he was on "CSI: Miami.”  However, in "Oculus" he portrays the dad, not only the sense of creepy, but also as time goes on, a certain sense of doom and dread.  Like the film itself, Rory plays dad much more subtle in his madness than Jack Nicholson does in "The Shining."  Katie Sackhoff's character Marie, succumbs, like her husband, to the effects of the mirror.  The slow rumble just below the surface, tiny voices in the back of your head with the millions of tiny whisperings play on the character’s minds as well as on the audiences.  The images in the mirror are deceiving and at times confusing.  Katee Sackhoff plays Marie as if she more like Regan in the "Exorcist.”  At times, she raves like a demon when the mirror possesses her.

Oculus - Katee Sackhoff  | A Constantly Racing Mind

This is not Flanagan's first trip out with a film about an evil mirror.  In 2005, Flanagan did a short film titled "Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan.”  This short seems to be the seed of what this new and improved film is about.  "Oculus" is more subtle than the 2007 film "Mirrors" starring Kiefer Sutherland.  With "Oculus," the art of building to a climax is more than the horror that arrives at the end.  That is this film's strength and its weakness.  In trying to build up a climax that hopefully allows the audience to say "Wow."  Although that doesn't quite happen, "Oculus" isn't a total letdown.  The story is almost too clever, but not quite, the acting is solid, and the ending is decent, but not what I was hoping for.  Overall, "Oculus" is worth watching at some point on DVD or Blu-ray.

Movie Data

Genre: Horror
Year:  2014
Staring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane
Director: Mike Flanagan
Producer(s): Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy, Jason Blum
Writer: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard 
Rating: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date:  4/11/2014

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