Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oculus

I bumped into my friend Chris Hallock before this movie; he was there to host a screening in the Somerville Theatre's micro-cinema and also catch Klute afterward, but he was also really excited about this one, having binged on director Mike Flanagan's work in order to do an interview for Diabolique magazine. That meant he had already watched it twice before opening day (but not the short which inspired it) and wanted to hear what others made of it, especially since a few folks he though would dig it didn't care for it at all. I'm going to have to pick up a copy to read his piece, just to see if the trends I'm noticing in Flanagan's film's (mostly for the better) are deliberate or just me seeing things.

Of course, you've got to talk about the end for that, which (as usual) will be after the main review.

Oculus

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2014 in Somerville Theatre #4 (first-run, DCP)

I likely won't actually have the time to sit down and plot out what the characters are doing to check and see if it all fits together when Oculus is released on video, but I'd kind of like to do so. While one does not really need an excuse to watch a fine horror movie again, there's something especially admirable about the ones which take pride in their intricate construction, especially when they are still able to provide legitimate jumps.

This one starts, more or less, with 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from the mental institution where he has spent half of his life since the death of his father (Rory Cochrane). Back then, young Tim and his sister Kaylie (Garrett Ryan & Annalise Basso) said a haunted mirror was behind what happened to their father and mother (Katee Sackhofff), but Tim has put that delusion behind him and is anxious to see his sister again. As for Kaylie (Karen Gillan), she thinks Tim was released just in time - she has found the mirror and wants Tim to help her kill it.

The believer/skeptic pairing has been a part of stories about the paranormal for about as long as there has been science to suggest that the things that go bump on the night are products of our imaginations, but it's almost never as well-deployed as what director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard do here. Most of the time, one is set up to look foolish, and frustratingly for me, it's usually the man of science being taken down a peg for trying to approach a question rationally. And while something like that must inevitably happen here, it's built so that Kaylie and Tim are both, in their ways, highly rational, coming at the situation in ways that make perfect sense from their own experiences. That Flanagan & Howard opt to invert some of the usual tropes and have believer Kaylie be the tougher older sister of the presumably fragile skeptic Tim is a fun bonus.

Full review at EFC

SPOILERS!

I mentioned thati would have liked to see the setup used as a film noir rather than a horror movie when I saw Absentia at Fantasia a couple years ago, and while I might not necessarily go that far with Oculus, I couldn't help but notice that there's potentially a great movie about dealing with heritable mental illness hiding within it. Sometimes that disguise is barely there, but it makes me kind of curious about the shape of Flanagan's career going forward. For supernatural horror movies, both Absentia and Oculus have unusually well-developed and specific relationships between the core characters and monsters that only rarely step into the foreground. That could just be less-is-more storytelling, or it could be a hint that they aren't really what he wants to talk about, but jumps and mythology get the genre audience's attention, and it's only fair to give the viewer what they paid to see.

Similarly, I notice that both movies are built around characters recovering from an emotional trauma in their past, be it a husband who vanished into thin air or a horrific way to lose one parents. Lots of movies do this, of course - it's a quick way to make characters interesting - but there's a pattern here: Paperwork to put something in the past, a reunion with one's sister, and, generally the situation dragging the protagonists back, even if one just wants to move on and the other is just trying to be helpful. Recovery seems to be a central theme in Flanagan's film's, not just the hook needed to give the main character an arc because folks look down on your spooky story if it doesn't feature personal growth.

Heck, I'm arguably one of those people; it certainly plays into why I initially found the end of both movies kind of disappointing. What are horror stories about, after all, if not facing one's past and triumphing over it? That means I tend to find "one last scare" moments or characters not being able to literally slay their demons unsatisfying; its usually a last-minute swerve meant to be unpredictable rather than feeling like the summation of all that has happened. So I didn't like Tim "ironically" ending up right where he started, especially as I was still feeling a bit of "you can't kill Amy Pond!" anger. A little bit of thought later, and it thematically fits much better, especially when you consider that image of Kaylie quite literally stuck to the object of her obsession with an anchor: Her consuming mania didn't just drag her down, but him as well - by not leaving her behind he got pulled back to where he was. I still don't love the ending - I want the one where they are literally and figuratively able to see clearly, walk away from the house, and let the mechanisms they've constructed do their jobs - but I do see its merits.

!SRELIOPS

On the plus side, I loved that young Tim and Kaylie played with what looked like Atari Lynxes in the flashbacks. Aside from being a reminder that Atari existed, the units being connected in a way that Game Boys weren't at the time (and a Wi-Fi connection doesn't get the same point across as a cord) helps subtly reinforce that the siblings are connected as well. I suspect that there's a lot of little stuff like that going on that a second viewing will reveal, and I love that the filmmakers have taken that sort of care.

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