Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Theaters: OCULUS (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Mike Flanagan.  Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard.  Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan Ewald, Miguel Sandoval, James Lafferty, Kate Siegel.  (R, 104 mins)

The concept of a haunted mirror is about as hoary a horror cliche as one can fathom, so the biggest surprise about OCULUS is what an effective little gem it is.  It's light on in-your-face scares and pretty conservative with the bloodshed, but where director/co-writer Mike Flanagan (ABSENTIA) really scores is the way he establishes such an ominous, foreboding mood throughout and confidently juggles multiple timelines in a story that could quickly grow unwieldy and fly off the rails. OCULUS isn't a film that sets out to reinvent the wheel, but it does succeed in showing that it's possible to make a good, solid, old-fashioned horror film that, were it to lose some of its more modern conveniences, could easily have been an Amicus offering from the early '70s, or perhaps a restrained late '70s/early '80s Italian horror film.  Flanagan wears his influences on his sleeve--there's some AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE SHINING and PRINCE OF DARKNESS in there as well--but to make something like that and get some distributor support in 2014 is a massive accomplishment in and of itself. You know at some point in the production, some or perhaps a few of the individuals among the boatload of credited producers called Flanagan in for a meeting and tried to sell him on going the found-footage route, probably showing him some cost analysis reports and some preview screening feedback cards of other recent films of that sort already forgotten. OCULUS is a film that mostly takes place in the present day and yet feels out of its own time.  The characters and the performances are straight-faced and deadly serious.  There's no hit songs on the soundtracks, there's no CGI gore, and there's no ironic snark. I don't want to come off like an old man telling the few remaining fans of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise to get off my lawn, but it's a sad state of affairs when something as traditional and straightforward as OCULUS manages to stick out from the crowd simply for being old-school and not fitted with any bullshit, trend-hopping bells & whistles to accommodate "the kids."

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday, 11 years after shooting and killing his father Alan (Rory Cochrane).  Having psychologically sorted out the incidents that led up to that horrific event, Tim is ready to start his new life but is reminded by his 23-year-old sister Kaylie (DOCTOR WHO's Karen Gillan) of a promise they made to one another when they were kids.  Karen works for an auction house and has gone to great lengths to secure a 300-year-old antique known as the Lasser Glass, a large mirror that's left a seemingly endless string of madness and murder in its wake.  As it changes hands through the centuries, it claims more victims, drawing power from the lifeforce of humans, pets, and plants in its vicinity, and using that power to psychologically manipulate and torment its owners.  Alan bought the Lasser Glass to adorn his office in the family's new home in 2002, and almost immediately, strange phenomena began to occur:  the kids (Annalise Basso plays young Kaylie, Garrett Ryan Ewald plays young Tim) see Alan talking to a strange woman named Marisol (Kate Siegel), Alan starts behaving irrationally, the family dog gets sick, plants start dying, and mom Marie (Katie Sackhoff) stands transfixed in front of the Lasser Glass.  Marie, believing Alan is having an affair, confronts him, prompting Alan to go berserk, beat her, and keep her chained in their bedroom.  Then he goes after the kids.

Flanagan deftly handles the mixing of past and present, with some very precise editing that allows the adult Kaylie and Tim to be in the same place as the actors playing their younger selves, never directly interacting, but as a clever way for them to revisit the trauma of their childhood.  One of the underlying themes of OCULUS is how, through the haze of time and the flexibility of memory, events can be recalled differently by various people who jointly experience them (Kaylie remembers the dog disappearing into the Lasser Glass while Tim recalls it getting sick and being put down by the vet).  The Lasser Glass has a way of playing tricks, distorting the perception and subsequent memories, and altering the reality of the people around it.  It's a gateway to another world and it goes in both directions, and no matter how many Rube Goldberg-esque precautions the obsessed Kaylie takes, one can never be sure what's real and what isn't once the Lasser Glass is no longer dormant.

It's a tricky plot that Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard, expanding Flanagan's 2006 short film OCULUS: THE MAN WITH THE PLAN, do an overall excellent job of mapping out.  Late in the film, when all hell breaks loose, it almost spins out of control but they pull it back in for a gut-wrenching finale.  While there are a few jump-scares, none of them are cheap and the sequences of the children being pursued through the house by both their haunted father and the monstrous Marie are terrifying. The sudden appearances of the spectral figures from inside the Lasser Glass are a lot more frightening when you just happen to see them standing there rather than having a jarring music cue announcing their presence. It also helps that the filmmakers let the story build and the characters grow, and they take a genuine risk in making Kaylie largely unsympathetic even though, of course, she's right.  Gillan's fiery performance anchors the first third of the film--she's as no-nonsense a horror heroine as you've seen in years when she goes through her rundown of how to combat the Lasser Glass and methodically lays out its backstory--though the whole ensemble does fine work.  There's enough going on in OCULUS to warrant repeat viewings, and while it's not groundbreaking in any way, it transcends the played-out trends of its era and strikes me as a film that will enjoy a long shelf life with fright fans who like their horror on the moody and atmospheric side.

And please.  No sequels.  No prequels.  No OCULUS: ORIGINS or some such nonsense.  It's a nice, nifty little film on its own.  Can't we just leave it at that?

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