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‘Oculus’ has a clear-eyed vision of evil

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Oculus (2014)

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The new horror movie “Oculus” has caused quite a stir since opening April 11. It’s earned solid critical Hosanna’s (71% over at rottentomatoes.com) and earned 16 million at the box office with just a five million dollar budget. It’s actually more extraordinary than even those good numbers would indicate as it earns its scares with two things generally not found in the genre – three-dimensional characters and psychological overtones that challenge the audience’s thinking. This is not a passive, ‘just scare me’ kind of movie experience. It’s deep, religious and affecting. It’s an extraordinary horror film.

Many scary movies keep you jumping by the more obvious tricks in the bag: ugly monsters, bloodletting, and jump-out of-your-seat shocks. You know those kinds of shocks – the ones where a cat suddenly springs out of nowhere to give you a start, or the killer is suddenly revealed at the edge of the frame. “Oculus” avoids most of those obvious yet effective ‘boos’. Its scares are more accumulative.

And it does so by spinning its spell around you over the course of its running time, ratcheting up the dread, investing you in its characters’ dilemma. At the end, you realize your nerves are shredded without a single, obvious set piece or big scene that sent you spiraling. It’s the whole movie that wrings you out.

“Oculus” succeeds in doing so because of its unique premise that puts character front and center. This film concentrates on just four - a mom, dad and their two children are the focus. 11 years ago, siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell barely escaped their home with their lives after their parents went crazy and became homicidal. Dad shoots and kills the mom, and then goes after the children. In the ensuing struggle, 10-year-old Tim ends up shooting his father dead and is carted off to an insane asylum.

What drove this family to the brink? The father's infidelity? Or was there something more evil at the core? A mirror hanging in the home office seems to be haunted. Is that why the plants are dying and the dog is acting up? The mirror may be a devilish antagonist or perhaps it's just merely reflecting and exacerbating the tensions already in the house.

After all, Mom is already on edge with her insecurity about her waning attractiveness. When she looks in the mirror she sees an aging woman losing her girlish looks. But is a mischievous mirror enhancing her ugliness, or is it all in her mind? And yes, Dad is overworked and pulling away from his family, but is the mirror to blame?

The cleverness of this movie lies in the answers to those questions. Sure, the mirror seems to have supernatural powers, but with a family that’s already a powder keg, how much sin is due to the wall hanging versus the parents explosive tempers?

Part of the thrill of “Oculus” is that it indicts both mirror and family. Jealousy, anxiety, and adultery are all evils present in the home without any help from a devil in the mirror. That is an incredible POV for a horror movie. And it grounds it in a reality that is relatable and all the more tragic. The mirror is a reflection, literally and figuratively, of the family’s psychological decline.

And the mirror never becomes the shrieking, house shaking entity one might expect it to become, based on the path of obviousness that so many entries in the genre take. But this one miraculously avoids such well-trodden ploys. Instead, “Oculus” remains disciplined throughout, never letting its mirror become more than a static prop.

The actors here perform most of the film's theatrics and it's some of the most vivid work ever done in the genre. Katee Sackhoff (http://imdb.to/1hW4e5Y) and Rory Cochrane are riveting as the troubled parents. Sackhoff can hold her head and body to be alluring one moment, and then shift her weight to become distressingly needy and ugly the next. And Cochrane underplays his spiral downward, making his nosedive all the more disturbing.

The young actors essaying the childhood versions of Kaylie and Tim are superb as well. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan get put through the ringer here. They have to play goofy kids one scene, then terrorized children the next, and they perform all of it without a false note. And their adult counterparts match them perfectly. The fire that the young Kaylie has is enhanced ten-fold in Karen Gillan’s adult take on the role. And the older Tim of Brenton Thwaites echoes Ryan's work perfectly.

Gillan is astonishing in the movie. In many ways, she is the true villain of the piece. Her dogged determination to destroy the mirror is as scary as anything else in the film. She's quite monstrous as she drags her vulnerable brother back to the death house just days after his sanitarium release. He may have been ruled insane but she’s the one losing her grip on reality, endangering both of their lives.

You’ll recognize Gillan from her “Doctor Who” days (http://bit.ly/1i13E6k), and here she is just as engrossing. In fact, she gives one of the greatest performances ever in a horror movie in “Oculus”. This Scottish actress is a real comer, and she does a flawless American accent too. She dominates the screen and manages to make earnestness absolutely chilling. Her monologue cataloging the mirror's decades of death is stunningly scary.

At time, Thwaites looks a bit too beefcake, with his pumped up biceps distracting from the horrors at hand, but the little boy is still evident in his take on the role despite his macho build. His needy mom, his deceptive dad, and his aggressive sister all run roughshod over Tim, forcing their issues onto him. It’s one of the film’s cleverest conceits that he is essentially the true mirror of the others’ projections.

Director Mike Flanagan cannot be praised enough for his singular vision here. He keeps a tight rein on the sharp script he wrote with Jeff Howard. Flanagan even edited the film and it’s fantastically taut, never lingering too long on any ghouls or violence. And even though he employs pets for scares, he thankfully doesn’t abuse the animals or dwell on their demise. And he keeps his gore modest. Even when Dad has chained Mom to the wall and she’s pulling out her own teeth, his discretion keeps it from being too repulsive.

On this Easter weekend, it’s interesting to note how Flanagan infused his film with religious themes. For those who know their Bible, Satan’s style is to coax man into doing evil deeds. We do the dirty work for him. He didn’t turn rocks into bread for a hungry Jesus; he asked the Son of God to use his own powers to do so. Flanagan’s devil in the mirror acts the same. It may be causing havoc but it’s mostly the power of suggestion. The mirror's victims are already in free fall. They're complicit in their own demise, as anyone can see.

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