'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.


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)

"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.


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