Reviews

'Oculus' Casts a Bad Reflection

Oculus is only partly about a mirror, a terrible, terrible mirror, the kind that pops up now and again in horror movies, the kind that's full length with an ornate wooden frame, odious and unfathomable.


Oculus

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Katie Parker, Kate Siegel, Miguel Sandoval
Rated: R
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-04-11 (General release)
UK date: 2013-06-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"I found it," announces Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) gapes at her from across a restaurant table, the white tablecloth suddenly a vast expanse. "What do you mean?" he wonders. She nods, earnest and sure. Tim, just now released from a hospital where he's spent a decade, resists. He's not sure what "it" is, even as Kaylie continues, laying out her plan for it, her expectation that he'll help her with it, and that he remembers it as vividly as she does.

It, you learn within minutes of watching Oculus, is a mirror, a terrible, terrible mirror, the kind that pops up now and again in horror movies, the kind that's full length with an ornate wooden frame, odious and unfathomable. As little as Tim, now 21 years old, seems to know about the mirror, Kaylie, 23, knows all. Turns out she's done several years' worth of research, aided in this day and age by the internet. Her story is convincing, for you, because you see the attendant flashbacks, decades-old photos and documents of ownership, headlines and home movies. These images make visible the saga she relates for Tim, who does his best not to believe her, to reject the connections she asserts in favor of coincidences and guesses.

It's helpful for viewers that Tim knows so little and that Kaylie knows so much in Oculus (so unfortunately named, but who could have guessed that Facebook would have bought the other Oculus, making a hubbub that might obscure the film's campaign). The difference between them -- despite Kaylie's insistence that they survived a previous encounter with the mirror together, as children -- situates you alongside Tim, listening with a mix of skepticism and dread, anticipating that Kaylie's story is true, if only because she's living inside this horror movie. For like Tim and Kaylie, you've seen this movie before. And you know how it will end.

Still, Kaylie does her best to forestall that ending, recalling the past and recording the present with all manner of technology. She remembers for Tim the monstrosity visited no their family when he was 11 and she was 13, newly moved into a scary house in the Chicago burbs with a nice enough mom, Marie (Katee Sackhoff), and distracted dad, Alan (Rory Cochrane), who is exponentially more distracted as soon as the mirror arrives in his study.

His distraction descends quickly into horror movie business, as in The Shining or Amityville Horror. He does awful things to his wife, his kids, and his dog. Tim doesn't remember any of this, he says, a lapse the movie explains by way of his stay in the hospital, where he was duly therapized into forgetting, into rationality, into doubt -- all those states that can only lead to bad ends in a horror movie.

Kaylie, by contrast, has forgotten nothing and believes wholly in what she remembers. Her mission, self-appointed, is to restore her brother's good name and also to save the world from the mirror, which remains in circulation (and thus, is available for her recent discovery and, at least for a moment, possession). Kaylie's plan is typical of a horror movie: she needs to tell her story -- so providing all the gory back business -- and then destroy the mirror (much as logic would have her do this in reverse order). Her plan is also elaborate, involving lots of cameras and monitors, laptops and thermostats, cell phones and alarms, as well as energy bars and cases of bottled water, because for some reason the mirror likes to dehydrate its victims). Tim looks on this equipment with the sort of doubt you might, if only you didn't know you were watching this movie.

But still… As Kaylie relives the gory back business in flashbacks (where she's played by Annalise Basso and Tim by Garrett Ryan), Oculus actually comes up with something like a decent idea, in its cutting between the kids at different ages, in cutting between Kaylie and her mom (both slender redheads and so, occasionally resembling one another), between doorways and windows in one time to doorways and windows in another. The movie in these instances is much less about the mirror or the monster in it than it is about how mirrors more generally structure seeing (and here, the title is less unfortunate). Extend this thematic focus to the shifting technologies of reflection, the screens and recordings that allow you to see yourself, to imagine others, to project pasts and futures, and Oculus sometimes looks a little smarter than the average bad mirror movie.

None of these instances can save the plot, which proceeds mostly as you anticipate. But they are beautifully composed visually, and they remind you of the ways that horror movies have so often been used in the past, as means to other ends. The point is not the cheesy jump scares or bloody penetrations or close-ups of frightened children's faces, all those clichés of horror movies. And in these images, in transitions between matching perspectives or frames, still or in motion, the film posits the blurring of past and present, certainly, but more compellingly, the ways such blurring shapes your sense of self, your trust in your stability and coherence. Kids haunted by bad mirrors will never see their way out of this puzzle. But you, watching kids haunted by bad mirrors, might see something beyond.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
popular

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image