Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 At the Movies: Oculus


In 1980, director Ulli Lommel gave the world his horror film, The Boogeyman. That film concerned child siblings Lacey (Suzanna Love) and Willie (Nicholas Love) who, as children faced family sexual dysfunction between their mother and her lover. 

The lovers’ tryst ended unexpectedly with the young boy, Willie, killing his mother’s lover with a knife and becoming a psychologically-troubled mute…and the spirit of the scorned lover transferred to an antique mirror. 

Then, as troubled adults attempting to make sense of their past, Lacy and Willie returned to the family house where they grew up to confront their dark past in the form of that possessed mirror.

Uli Lommel's The Boogeyman (1980).
Mike Flanagan’s new horror film, Oculus is a clever variation on The Boogeyman story, and one dramatized with far greater intelligence, frankly, and much more skill. 

In this case, child siblings Kaylee (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Benton Thwaites) witness the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, and Tim shoots and kills his father (Rory Cochrane) on a night of murder and mayhem. 

Years later, the psychologically troubled, 21-year old Tim is released from St. Aidan’s Medical Facility and he learns that Kaylee wants him to return to their family home, the scene of the old crime. 

There, she plans to destroy the object which she blames for their family's destruction eleven years earlier: an antique, supernatural mirror.

Mike Flanagan's Oculus (2014).
As you can tell from a quick reading of the two synopses above, there exist some narrative similarities between The Boogeyman and Oculus. And yet despite that fact, the two similarly-structured horror films prove the old adage that it is not a film’s story that truly counts, but rather how the film vets that particular story.
In this case, Oculus is a carefully-wrought, cerebral horror film that generates a mood of mind-bending horror, and truly addresses its subject matter -- dysfunctional family history -- in a deep and meaningful fashion.
By contrast, The Boogeyman is more about the orchestration of its special effects and the shock impact of spectral happenings. The older film degenerates into a series of not-all-that effective Exorcist-style possession set-pieces, including some in which shards of the evil mirror run amok and kill a group of horny teenagers.
Oculus remains true -- and committed -- in both tone and subject matter to its themes, without incorporating such distracting and unnecessary bells and whistles. Oculus quickly settles down in the old family house, in front of that supernatural mirror, and never wanders far from that setting, thus forcing the audience to reckon with it and its importance to the characters and their lives.


In other words, Oculus plays very much like a fully-developed, fully-thought-out meditation on the narrative dynamic that The Boogeyman set up -- but failed to fully or maturely exploit -- thirty-five years ago.  As such, this horror film is a very welcome effort from the director of Absentia (2011), one of the finest and most disturbing horror movies of recent vintage.
In terms of specifics, Oculus concerns itself with two matters of vital human interest, or perhaps, more aptly, human psychology, and how they pertain to family relationships.
The first is the way that the human mind remembers, interprets, and attempts to rationalize events that are unpalatable, in what the movie terms “fuzzy trails” of memory. 
The tag-line for the film is "you see what it wants you to see," and the "it" there is ostensibly the evil mirror.
But in real life, we see what the brain wants us to see, what it allows us to see, and that is very much a subject for passionate debate in the film.
Kaylee and Tim offer competing visualizations of what their shared past really looked like, at least at first.

Kaylee is committed to the belief that the mirror destroyed her family. She has erected her entire life upon this foundation, on the idea that her family was good -- and innocent -- and that a dark exterior force ripped it apart, and destroyed it.
In direct opposition, Tim is convinced that hidden, pre-existing “fractures” in their family’s dynamic eventually grew and multiplied, spider-web-like, and shattered it.  Separately, these fractures look like an unfaithful father, an insecure mother, economic/job pressures, and so forth. 
Sponsored in part by his doctor at St. Aidan’s, Tim suspects that these fractures reached critical mass…and resulted in murder.
In broad strokes, what Oculus aptly diagrams here, then, is the schism delineating two brands of horror films.  As director John Carpenter has noted, one brand is about evil “outside” the tribe, threatening it. The other is about an evil growing inside the tribe, also threatening it.  In ways nuanced and clever, Oculus bridges the gap between approaches. In fact, it sets up a dialogue between them, reflected in the “fuzzy” trails or viewpoints of its two lead characters.
Similarly, Oculus’s ideas of memory dictating or shaping reality, and the “fuzzy trails” of human recollection are very timely, because they concern a mind-set we see often in the national dialogue. 
When one becomes committed irretrievably to a point-of-view -- no holds-barred -- facts, evidence, logic, and other factors become un-important; incidental. We become obsessed with proving our irrational point of view, regardless of the truth. 
Yet what makes Oculus clever is that Kaylee and Tim argue meaningfully about who is obsessed, and who is crafting an "alternate" reality, and in the end, we see that neither one is correct. Both are deluded, to some extent.  The mirror is infused with some form of sinister life, but it utilizes what’s inside people -- their psychological foibles -- to harm them. It’s not a simple matter of either/or, black-and-white, or right or wrong. Instead, a weird symbiosis is at work. The mirror hurts us by showing us things already inside us.
The second matter that Oculus explores well -- and that is reflected in the very structure of this work of art -- is that one never truly leaves the past.
Instead, the past walks hand-in-hand with the present -- with us, right now.
Accordingly, every time that we gaze at ourselves in a mirror, we are not only seeing ourselves as we are today, but reflections of who we were before, and the choices we have made.
The past lives inside us in ways we can’t always see, let alone fathom.
The mirror in Oculus not only forces Kaylee and Tim to confront the present, it brings their past to vivid life and makes them live it all over again. 
The film thus cuts seamlessly from childhood trauma to present trauma, forging two parallel (and rubber…) realities.  As the movie hurtles towards its conclusion, the walls between time-periods come down all together, and reality is blurred. 
These parallel tracks of development -- involving the same two characters in the same house, but at different time periods --  remind audiences that we are all products of the past and more indirectly, of our childhood and family settings.
In terms of the film’s horror, Flanagan’s dual-track approach viscerally reminds us too, that the past is inescapable.
By replaying the past as it simultaneously forges the present, the film creates a powerful sense of steam-roller inevitability.  As Oculus progresses, we understand that the errors of the past are being repeated, and that they are impossible for this duo to escape.
And yes indeed, this seems like a metaphor for family life.
The same scenarios seem to play out again and again, and we rarely escape their gravitational pull. Instead, we respond as we did before, even if we would rather respond differently.  Against our wills, and our better judgment, we are drawn back to relive the same cycle, the same events, the same dysfunctions.
Oculus works effectively as a horror film, in my opinion, because it explores each (seemingly) little moment of Kaylee and Tim’s journey and finds terror in realistic, small-scale moments.  The film doesn’t seek out big elaborate set-pieces, or wild scenes of special-effects driven horror (like The Boogeyman did).  Instead, two of the most notable terror scenes involve everyday moments that suddenly, horribly, move from reality to nightmare.
In the first sequence, Kaylee’s father attempts to remove a bandage from his finger-tip, but can’t get it…apparently.  He tries and tries to yank the band-aid from his flesh, but when he has no success, he uses a staple remover from his office desk, and the audience sees -- in nauseating fashion -- how the mirror has manipulated his sight. 
He has pulled off much more than a band-aid…
Again, the moment seems to function metaphorically. The Dad tears off a bandage, ripping open an old wound, and that’s what this whole family milieu represents to Katie and Tim, the confronting of an old injury.
But Oculus’s most masterful scene of horror involves Kaylee, a light-bulb and an apple. While charting the power of the mirror -- which drains energy and life from household objects and appliances -- he sets down her apple beside the bulb on a counter-top.
Absent-mindedly, she picks one object up and begins chewing. 
Guess which one she takes a chunk out of…
Again, this small moment carries enormous impact.
In broad terms, the apple, obviously, is a symbol of knowledge. In the Garden of Eden, Eve ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, and she and Adam were expelled from Paradise. 
In Oculus, Kaylee eats the poison apple of knowledge, but in this case, the knowledge that is so bloody, I believe, is that the mirror does not operate alone.
This mirror’s particular brand of evil is the way that it plays on human insecurities.  In other words, people gaze into that looking glass and see their own neuroses and “cracks” mirrored there.  We possess some complicity for the nature of our own reflection, after all. We are who we have made ourselves to be, directly or indirectly.

We see this dynamic played out especially in terms of Kaylee’s mother. She is insecure about her C-section scar; fearful that she is no longer attractive to her husband.  The mirror exploits this fear that she is a “grotesque cow” and begins to twist her personality until there is nothing else there but her self-loathing and fear.  Eventually, this ugliness manifests in reality. She becomes the monster of her worst nightmares.
In Kaylee’s biting of the apple, knowledge mixes and blends with blood. And that too is a metaphor for the whole movie. Kaylee’s obsession with the mirror has not taken into account that her family had dysfunctions that it could plumb and exploit.
So if the apple symbolizes knowledge, blood represents family.
What I admire most about the films of Mike Flanagan, namely Absentia and Oculus, is that the director doesn’t compromise or water down his visions to make them palatable to wide audiences.  He follows his stories to their logical conclusion with driving, relentless, logical purpose and commitment. The conclusion of Oculus mirrors the nihilistic “no light at the end of the tunnel” finale of Absentia.  The idea here is that the past drives the present, and, by necessity, the future.  The cycle of horror continues, and breaking out of the pattern is a virtual impossibility.  Flanagan’s gift is that he can deliver this “pure” ending so naturally and so effectively that it doesn’t feel like a hook for a sequel, though, of course, we want one…
Some viewers may find Flanagan’s latest film too difficult (and too dark…) to contemplate for long, but Oculus stares into the abyss in a haunting and unforgettable fashion. The mirror has been used before in the horror genre many times, not just in The Boogeyman, but on TV in Thriller’s “The Hungry Glass,” and in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987). The mirror remains such an effective vehicle for horror stories, I suppose, because it promises transparency.
We should see only what is there, what is real. But as Oculus understands and explores, it is not just what we see in the looking glass that matters, but how we interpret what we see there.  The “fuzzy trails” of memory shape and re-shape reflections until crystal-clear reality becomes opaque, unclear. 
Oculus dwells and thrives in that opacity…darkly.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe my expectations were too high. I got bored with "Oculus". The premise was nothing original. There was a nice setup of the mirror as an ominous haunted object. When the main character describes why the mirror is to blame for up to 45 murders over a few centuries, it really holds your attention. Then, as the mirror starts to play tricks on the woman and her brother, the movie falls flat.

    There are some good moments, like when the main character is tricked into biting a light bulb (ouch!!!), but I was lost trying to figure out exactly what was happening. The movie keeps switching between the woman and her brother in the present, and then flashing back to when they were young and being terrorized by their mother and father (and the mirror). There are even times when the young characters see themselves as their grownup selves within the flashbacks. It makes zero sense. I'm confused just writing about it. Maybe the film makers needed to define the mirror's haunting techniques better. I don't know.

    ReplyDelete