Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Cinema File #339: "Oculus" Review

Horror movies come in waves. You never get just one slasher movie or one body horror movie, you get a few great original ones and then a billion imitators, and then those imitators mate, mutate, and replicate with the other sub-genres until the word derivative loses all of its meaning. Hopefully we've just about reached the tail end of the last big wave of found footage movies, and the next big thing in horror seems to be taking its cues from last year's surprising hit The Conjuring with old school throw backs to the haunted house movies of the sixties and seventies. The new horror gem Oculus fits well into this old is new mold while at the same time bending it with a novel non-linear structure, resulting in something that feels both classic and innovative at the same time, providing a blueprint for the coming years that I for one hope others try to follow.

The story follows two separate time lines chronicling the troubled lives of two siblings who lost their parents and their sanity in a battle against a cursed mirror, only to risk losing what little they have left years later as they seek revenge against the mysterious object. Almost from the very beginning, there is an entry point for this movie that is sure to turn off those more comfortable with a traditional narrative structure, as it begins to bounce between the past and the present with no overt cues other than the respective ages of the actors, which only becomes more muddled when the mirror starts skewing our perception of past and present, along with everything else. That's how it gets you, tricking you into seeing what it wants you to see, eventually driving you mad so that you will be more likely to meet a violent end and find yourself, or rather your spirit, trapped as one of its haunting reflections. At least that's what I think is going on. The movie is fairly light on concrete exposition, which only makes it that much more fun to experience.

What little information we get comes from a deranged and unreliable source, specifically the charismatic as all hell Karen Gillan as sister sibling Kaylie, who has spent her life since the death of her parents obsessing over how to prove the supernatural nature of the mirror before destroying it once and for all. Her lovably mad performance is the highlight of the movie, which ingeniously twists the final girl trope by making her survival only the first chapter of a larger and ultimately more tragic story. Her brother, recently released from a psych ward, has convinced himself that none of it was real, and his insistent protests and appeals to reason represent perhaps the first dogged skeptic in a horror movie that I didn't want to punch in the face for their stupidity. The conflict between these two characters never feels forced or contrived, and when the shit hits the fan and there's no denying the truth that this mirror really is something evil, everyone is on board, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're any better off.

The effects of the "monster" in this movie are subtle, just tweaking the way a person sees the world around them, creeping into their mind gradually and exploiting their own vices and weaknesses to eventually break them down. And it always wins, because it makes the rules. Even when you think you have it on the ropes or think you're free of it, that's only because that's what it wants you to think. Kaylie thinks she has it figured out and goes to great lengths to both defend herself against its tricks, but also turn them against it, leading to a sort of cat and mouse game that's more clever and successful than you would think considering one of the participants is an inanimate object without voice or movement. Thankfully, the movie knows how to parallel form with substance, creating an atmosphere where watching the movie places the audience into the same experience as the protagonists, unable to tell their left from their right, completely at the mercy of a nefarious controller. The movie leads you through the same psychological obstacle course as the mirror does its victims, employing misdirection at every turn until what should have been obvious smacks you right in the head.

Oculus is that rare horror film like last year's brilliant del Toro produced Mama that stays within the wheelhouse of what you would expect just enough to make you comfortable, but then uses the margins to go deeper and farther into a larger world you didn't know you wanted to play in. With Mama, that was a world of dark fantasy, while here the edges have the distinct feel of an original Japanese horror film, abstract and built upon performance, imagery, and sensory experience over obtrusive mythology or exposition. We don't need a flashback to show how the mirror was forged by demons or etched from the glass of a lightning strike on the beach of Roanoke island, or any other equally stupid origin story. The mirror just is, and you have to deal with it or let it take you down, and even if you try to deal, chances are it will still take you down. Further sequels will no doubt dispel a lot of this treasured mystery in favor of some silly and unnecessary explanation, but in the meantime, this presumably inaugural effort stands on its own as one of the best mainstream released horror movies in the last few years.
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