Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: OCULUS (2013)

Oculus (2013)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Seen via: Raleigh, NC Dollar Theater

Hauntings are usually dangerous only because of what they reveal about those who are haunted. Ghosts are ethereal - they can't destroy someone who didn't have the potential for destruction already within them. Both of the main characters in Oculus are floating on oceans of repressed trauma just waiting to be unleashed. It's somewhat fitting then, that the symbol at the heart of the story is a mirrror, because the journey in this film doesn't so much take us into the supernatural as it does into the recesses of its main characters' psyches.

[Spoilers throughout.]

As a child, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) murdered his father in self-defense. He's been institutionalized ever since. Over the years he's developed tools to move beyond the physical and psychological abuse that his father inflicted on his family and restore order to his life. His release date, also his eighteenth birthday, gives him the chance to reconnect with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) for the first time since their traumatic separation.

Kaylie has not yet moved on with her life and instead has constructed an elaborate explanation for the events of their childhood. In her version of the story it was a haunted mirror that caused the possession of her father and drove him to destroy their famiily. Kaylie has tracked down the mirror once again, meticulously researched its history, and approached its supernatural properties with an almost scientific mindset. The effects that it has on its victims are varied: personal neglect, dehydration, starvation, catatonia, self-inflicted violence - all ultimately end in death. Kaylie is convinced that she can beat the mirror with Tim's help and convinces him that the best course of action is to lock themselves in the house with it and confront its evil once and for all.

Beneath the surface-level ghost story, Oculus is about the trauma domestic abuse imposes on its victims and how the cycle of abuse leaves a legacy spanning generations. The mirror is a mechanism for both Kaylie and Tim to confront the events that destroyed their family. Both have used different strategies to avoid revisiting the conflict, whether it's deliberately repressing memories or cloaking them in fantasy. But locked in the house with the mirror, there's no choice for them but to look within, to look back upon themselves and re-encounter what really happened the night Tim killed their father. The film accomplishes this through a series of flashbacks woven through modern-day storyline. The jumps between past and present slowly fill in the details of the past and become more frequent until the timelines seem to merge. It's a really clever editing device that spices up the second act of the film, which seems to be when lots of haunted house flicks begin to drag. Even if the film spins its wheels for a little while toward the end, it's gained sufficient momentum by that point to carry it through to its conclusion, where past and present seem to finally converge.

Tim, meet Tim.
With the extent that the film plumbs the psychological depths of its characters, it doesn't really even need a supernatural monster. You get the sense that it recognizes this, since we only catch a few rare glimpses of the specter in the mirror until the very end. Rather than a story of a foreign entity haunting strangers, this is a narrative about the trauma inflicted on the victims of domestic abuse and how it weaves itself through the rest of their lives. It's a shame that the supernatural does eventually take center stage, but it thankfully never completely crosses the line and becomes completely ridiculous (remember "Mr. Boogie" from Sinister?). When the ghosts eventually manifest, we've already entered purely psychological territory, so they function less as a supernatural threat and more as distorted memories of the protagonists' damage.

There's been a surge in "domestic" horror in the past few years, which producer Jason Blum has capitalized on like crazy. These films tend to follow a pretty strict formula that was defined in Paranormal Activity and subsequently refined with Insidious and Sinister, (and taken to a ridiculously right-wing extreme in Dark Skies). All of these films play on fears of the nuclear family going truly nuclear under the influence of illness, unemployment, and loss of national identity. Take fears borne of the current political climate, throw a supernatural monster on top, and you've apparently figured out the recipe for box office success. Oculus fits right in with the rest of these films, but despite its general adherence to the formula it's actually a fair bit smarter than its precursors. I'll chalk a large portion of the credit up to director Mike Flanagan, whose Absentia was a really strong character-driven horror film completed on a shoestring budget. If Oculus signals a turn toward the mature for this breed of horror, then it's one I'll gladly welcome. If not? Well, we can always hope for the best in the inevitable sequel.


  1. Oculus reminded me of 1408... and fell flat for me for the same reasons. When stories get that trippy/dreamy it's hard to hang on to anything and care about it... because you know that any moment it's going to pull the rug out, again.
    I didn't really take it as a commentary about domestic abuse, any more than The Shining or Amityville Horror or any number of old 'Dad's possesed' style frighteners. Sure, bad things happened to a previously, I assume happy, family... but the mirror really was a bad thing doing mindwarps to feed on people

    1. You're right, playing games with "reality" during a film can be tricky and can sometimes make it hard to become invested in the story. Here I was willing to indulge it because the film is so concerned with the haunted psychological state of its characters. I thought the mind games were an effective way to portray the unreliable nature of the characters' memories.

      Interpreting the evil mirror at face value is definitely one way to read this one, but I think looking at it through the lens that the subtext provides only adds to it. I feel the same way about The Shining & Amittyville though. (And even for films I don't otherwise care for, e.g. Paranormal Activity.)

      Thanks for reading & commenting!