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Oculus: Seen and unseen

Oculus Theatrical Poster
© Relativity

Oculus, a horror film directed by Michael Flanagan

Rating:
Star4
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There have been very few titles in the filmography of WWE Studios that warrant mention, let alone a proper viewing. Surprised as I was to find out that 8 of their library I have seen, the most recent addition Oculus, being the first chance to do so in theaters. And where movies like the Walking Tall remake and The Scorpion King were fun fare (mainly due to the performance capabilities of Dwayne Johnson), their overall quality has made their production logo more of a warning than anything else. However, this brings us to Oculus, its most recent entry into the horror genre, and it actually surprised me in more ways than anticipated.

Before noting the production staff that pumped this film out to audiences, it was the cast that had attracted such an interest. As the story begins, the audience is introduced to the characters Tim and Kaylie Russell, as Tim is being released from a mental institution after the better part of a decade. Tim is played by Brenton Thwaites, who is notable more for the projects he is coming out with (Prince Phillip in Maleficent and Jonas in The Giver) than his preexisting credits (Stu Henderson in Home and Away), so he was relatively new to me as the film progressed.

This film centers around the two (primarily Kaylie) locating and setting about destroying a malevolent mirror that is responsible for the grotesque deaths and insanity of its owners, the last being Kaylie and Tim’s deceased parents.
Initially, Thwaites’ performance is very controlled and precise, adding a further layer of authenticity to the characters and subsequently the world in which the events of the story take place. Being released from a mental institution, he attempts to break down the possibilities of what is occurring with rational and contemplative analysis, but as things become continually more unexplainable, he slips back into his mindset before the institutionalization and does his best to remain sane. However, as the film continues on, his performance seems to range all over the spectrum, and because of this lack of proper conveyance, it was hard to continue to relate with the character.
Kaylie is portrayed by Karen Gillan, who (of course) is famous for portraying Amy Pond from 2010-2013 in Dr. Who. Being a mild-mannered fan of the series, I hadn’t invested enough time to reach her episodes, so her cameo role in New Town Killers was all the exposure to her acting I had till this point. Her intensity at the start of the film comes off as a little too cartoonish, almost caricaturizing, especially when paired up with the down-toned and realistic rationale of Thwaites. However, as the film progresses, the performance becomes more and more believable and empathetic, so this could be viewed as a defect in her performance, or the exact characterization that the filmmakers wanted, her initially appearing completely insane and then being proved as the sanest one of all (considering).

The entirety of the production is a mirroring of two (almost identical) story arcs of when Haylie and Tim are children, encountering the mirror and its effects for the first time, and when they are adults, trying to destroy it. This presents us with an outline for how the story is told, as well as a deepened sense of terror when experiencing the supernatural occurrences from their different perspectives. The one issue with doing a film of this type is that because of the mirroring of the storylines, the opportunity (and necessity, in horror) for tension has to be crafted more from the performances and the ultimate mood. Enter the parents.

Leading the cast were primarily Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff playing the parents Alan and Marie Russell. Cochrane is a very strong and notable presence in the film, and considering his past work in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and A Scanner Darkly, as well as his acclaimed role in Ben Affleck’s Argo, he was a great choice. The conviction he brings to the role of Alan Russell is remarkable, considering how little the character actually says. It is a performance of subtle changes and carrying undertones. As Alan slowly is driven insane by the mirror, his mannerisms, his voice and even the way he walks goes through drastic changes when comparing to the start of the story. Though his role is only one part of the whole, the next piece absolutely necessary is Sackoff’s performance. She gives one of the most convincing performances of her career thus far (which is impressive considering her iconic role as Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica remake, and her work in 24 and Longmire). Her changes in mental and physical states are far more drastic in a shorter amount of time, till a point arises where she basically becomes a rabid bloodhound in order to seek out and destroy her children.

And speaking of the children, the younger versions of Tim and Haylie are played by Young and the Restless veteran Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso, a supporting actress in SundanceTV’s new series, The Red Road. Though both played their parts to the best of their ability, only Basso was fully believable in her performance. There were too many instances of Ryan appearing distraught or scared, whereas with Basso, it felt evident down to her bones that her reactions were genuine. And the power of that type of effortless assimilation into the mindset of a character is something to be truly appreciated and respected. As the events in both timelines get progressively more intense and deadly, this is where the work of the director and the editing comes into fruition more than anyone would expect.

The pacing of the film was determined by the editing style of the work. Though it could have easily gone with the flashback-flash-forward setup, and made the film very accessible to audiences, it would have been reduced to a stock-standard ghost story that would undercut Insidious levels of horror storytelling. However, the broken and disjointed editing is also mixed together with an assimilation of past and present events combining together. This is a particular master stroke that was necessary for the film not only to live, but to thrive. One similar film that was effective at this style of jumbled presentation was Stephen Hopkins’ The Reaping, which added frustration to the actual viewing of the film, but as things are revealed the audience understands the artistic choices made.

Oculus differs from this style a bit more, however, and makes it not only an artistic style, but a required element of actually telling the narrative, which is taking a leaf out of movies like that of Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Paprika). The director/editor/co-writer Mike Flanagan (whose 2011 film Absentia is something all thriller fans should see) had based this film primarily off a short he had released in 2006 titled Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan, though I have yet to see the original short, the dedication and personal drive of Flanagan is evident in every frame of the work. Now, with all of these praises for the work there are detractors. The initial elements of the ghosts and supernatural elements of the mirror come off as sort of silly, especially in the inciting scene where the first ghosts are seen. And where there are some genuine moments of gut-wrenching uncomfort, the movie never gets what many would call “scary”. This is not a scary film, or a film that is hard to watch necessarily. It is a haunting experience.

This film is following in the vein of the resurgence of old-school gothic ghost stories that began with the success of Hammer Horror’s The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe, and James Wan’s The Conjuring. The pacing is slow and (some might say) meandering, which is a perfect deflection technique so that when the true horror begins it isn’t a constant series of jump scares and not just the butchering of people in the most supercilious ways thinkable. The effort was put more into the story and the film as a whole rather than it being a stag reel of grotesque scenes stitched together just so we have an excuse to watch the carnage. This is a much-welcomed slate of films due to the overwhelming amount of torture porn and shock cinema that has polluted the horror library since the release of James Wan’s Saw. This film is hardly bloody, and when there is violence or any trace of what may be considered gore, it is done sparingly, so that its effect is amplified. This is filmmaking that is meticulously crafted (whether on purpose or by the result of the production experience).

Overall, the film was highly enjoyable and more engrossing than originally thought possible when first walking in the theater. And one can only hope that more horror films of this vein (and of this quality) continues to grace theaters in the near future (which it may with the new Hammer release of The Quiet Ones).