“Oculus” (2014): A Mirror Up to the Nature of Horror?

Movie poster for OCULUS (2014)
Movie poster for OCULUS (2014) — image source: IMDB

Mirrors have always been uncanny objects. This characteristic has been thoroughly exploited in stories, whether told via words alone (as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) or via moving pictures (as in the classic horror film Candyman [1992]). A mirror is the central plot device in the movie Oculus (2014), which opened today in U.S. theaters. This film builds upon and attempts to diverge from the extensive history of the use of mirrors in literature and cinema. As we will see, the significance of the Oculus mirror is anchored by the meaning of the movie’s title. However, the promise of this significance and the considerable tension built up by the way that this story was shot are both somewhat unfulfilled by its climax and denouement. Nevertheless, this film is definitely a “go” for horror movie lovers.

The word “oculus,” as defined by Dictionary.com, literally means “eye.” Oculus certainly involves an eye-like object — an antique mirror. However, the architectural and archaeological meanings of the word are better fits for this object and the film around which its story is built. To architects, an oculus is “a circular opening, especially one at the apex of a dome.” To archeologists, it is “a design representing an eye, as on funerary pottery found in megalithic tombs of Europe.” The Oculus mirror, which indeed is of European origin, functions in this movie as an opening at the apex of the world of the dead — more specifically, the dead who have been claimed by the daemonic realm.

This information and interpretation are not spoilers, as the film’s trailer reveals much (but, of course, not all) about the mirror and its narrative role. Its director, Mike Flanagan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Howard), gave equal weight to the histories of its two main characters, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillian, the Scottish actress who is well-known for her Doctor Who episodes) and her younger brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites, the Australian star of the Fox8 teen drama series, SLiDE).

As children, these two characters experienced the devastating effects on their family (specifically, their father, played by Rory Cochrane [Argo, A Scanner Darkly], and their mother, portrayed by Katee Sackhoff [Battlestar Galactica, Riddick]) of the evil contained by the mirror. One of them, Tim, spent his adolescence in court-ordered residential psychiatric treatment because of his involvement in the incident. The other, Kaylie, used her adolesence and early adulthood to acquire the skills, knowledge, and means necessary to track down and destroy the mirror. At the start of the narrative, she obtains the last tool she needs for this quest: Tim, who is released from the mental ward after his psychiatrist pronounces him cured of his “delusions” about what happened to him and his family.

Although he provides the basic back-story in the first act, Flanagan tells the rest through alternating cuts from the film’s present to its past and back. Only the first flashback is identified as such by a subtitle. Thereafter, the fim moves fluidly between these two chronologies, with cuts becoming more and more frequent. By the third act, time alternations become so frenetic that the viewer becomes unsure whether s/he is in the past or the present.

This effect is exactly what Flanagan intends. Yet, uncertainty about location in time is not the only trick that the movie plays on the viewer. The distinction between reality and delusion is also at stake — a conflict that is set up in the first act by a clash between Tim’s understanding of past events, as influenced by his psychiatric “cure,” and Kaylee’s, which is a product of her apparently psychologically unreconstructed condition.

Both Thwaites and Gillian are convincing their roles. Gillian’s portrayal recalls the personality of her Doctor Who character, Amy Pond, in her intelligent yet hard-headed determination. Young Kaylie is played by Annalise Basso, her brother Tim by Garrett Ryan.  The work of these younger actors is excellent in terms of character continuity with their adult counterparts. This achievement is especially important given that they not only play scenes in the past, but also in the present — sometimes alongside their more mature, young adult selves.

In further critical assessment of this film, I have been assisted by a new acquaintance, whom I met at the Frisco, Texas-area cineplex where I saw Oculus earlier today. While walking out of the theater, I am in the habit of asking the opinions of strangers who watched the movie with me. [An interesting side-note here: when I bought one ticket for this movie, the ticket booth person expressed alarm that I was going to watch Oculus alone. This got my hopes up that I was in for a scare.] While this tactic often leads to strange looks from and quick getaways on the part of those I approach (particularly if they are women), today’s case was different. The young man I addressed turned out to be a horror-film fanatic (not shocking — who else goes to weekday 11:15 AM matinees?). With prior knowledge of and experience with horror movies well beyond mine, he proved to be quite a good resource.

The major point of my new movie buddy’s critique involved his disappointment by the ending (which will not be revealed here), an opinion with which I agree. His reason was that the film did not give enough back-story about the mirror (although the film does not ignore the mirror’s history — see the trailer below). On this issue, he compared Oculus to The Conjuring (2013), arguing that, in the latter, a sufficiently extensive back-story made the film’s demon-possessed house convincingly frightening. Jump scares were another topic of discussion. My friend felt that there were too many and that they weren’t that scary. All in all, we agreed that the movie built up quite deliciously complex complications (no second-act problems here), but didn’t deliver a knockout punch at the end. However, there is plenty of room left for a sequel.

In the area of cinematography, the film’s tagline, “You see what it wants you to see,” applies as much to the camera as it does to the mirror. Point-of-view is the major aspect of cinematography used in this film, particularly in connection with the jump scares. Otherwise, I did not notice anything particularly innovative about the camera work, which is nevertheless very good. From a technical standpoint, I appreciated the tracking shot of Kaylie’s entrance into the bidding room of the auction house where she works. There is also one scene, involving an intimate moment between Cochrane’s and Sackhoff’s characters, that involves a camera roll. Although most of the scenes involve standard Hollywood shots, they provide a firm base upon which other aspects of film-making, such as visual special effects, Foley work, SFX makeup, and editing, fruitfully build.

Message? I’m not certain that Flanagan means to send one with this film. There is certainly plenty of material for a discussion of delusion/hallucination vs. reality, especially in the context of contemporary neuroscience’s understanding of how memory works.  One could also have a discussion of this movie as a metaphor for family psychopathology. As always, realizations that I get from unconsciously-mediated reactions to films trump any intellectual discussions. I came out of this film noticing how sinister and creepy malls look; there seemed to be something dark lurking somewhere among the glitzy storefronts and cutesy kiosks. When I caught myself checking the mirrors on the mall’s food court merry-go-round, I knew this film had succeeded in getting under my skin.

FRISCO KID’s rating: 4 stars

4 thoughts on ““Oculus” (2014): A Mirror Up to the Nature of Horror?

  1. Glad that you liked it a lot as well. It is refreshing to see cinemas take a new interesting in horror again. We have had Oculus, Afflicted and The Quiet Ones in a single month. The latter is being released on the 25th!

    Between, I enjoyed your commentary on the camera work!


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