Sunday, May 25, 2014

Oculus


  It's really hard in this day and age to find a horror movie capable of actually scaring you. The craft of scaring an audience has been worked down to a formula and it's become a blueprint for clones. Horror movie clones that seem to play off the exact same tropes the one before it did. Yet, every so often you have one that either rises above the tropes to do something different altogether, or you have one that uses the tropes in it's favor to create a new experience. Oculus is the former. For that alone, I must give it applause.

  Oculus isn't something I was dying to see, but a friend of mine who's movie-watching judgment I trust said it was good. So after watching a few other movies, I decided to give it a go. I can see how people would really really like this movie. A fresh and unique story, great acting, unconventional plotting. All around, it's quite an experience. One that is keen on thinking outside of the box, and making you question what other horror movies would have you take for granted. So, I'm saying this right now... Oculus is worth a look. It deserves the time of day because it goes to great lengths to be an effective horror movie without relying on age old tropes that even movies like Insidious and The Conjuring relied on.

   Having said that... I don't think Oculus is a good movie. No sir. Oculus is a movie that is smart. Yet I firmly believe it runs out of steam about halfway through. The movie has lots of flashbacks, and I feel like everything it had to say in these flashbacks could've been told in a single flashback in the beginning of the movie. As it is, it starts to feel like padding because they don't know what else to do with their concept. The concept is actually quite creative. It's a haunted mirror that destroys people's lives. Yet, it's very different than you would expect. The mirror itself is... halfway given a personality all it's own. It wants to feed on misery and victims- yet on the other hand, in a massive effort to avoid tropes and pitfalls, the filmmakers chose not to make the mirror a character itself so to speak.

  This haunted mirror is simply that. A haunted mirror. We don't know why it kills, or if it has any ultimate motivation. That ambiguous approach doesn't work here. We're teased with backstory and character, but it's all dead ends. As a result, I feel like the movie is rather inert. We spend so much time with our main characters focusing on the mirror, yet it's a vicious circle that instead of suspenseful, quickly becomes nothing except exhausting. I feel like this one flaw exposes another, and another. For one, as I mentioned in passing earlier, the filmmakers really seemed to run out of things to do about halfway through.

  They pad out the suspense and use the same tricks they'd been using for the past hour on us, just kinda backwards or upside down. Yet unfortunately, I was actually wondering if they were building to some sort of twist or something, and they weren't. The ending tries to be something it can't. It tried to complete a character loop that just wasn't there. It's abrupt, and cheap, and doesn't evoke the proper response it wanted. Mind you, I have seen many endings that I wasn't a fan of, but for the most part I can understand those endings and respect them. By nature, I dig happy endings. Yet sometimes an unhappy ending is just... necessary. I'm not saying whether or not this had a happy ending, I'm just saying whether or not it did has no bearing on the fact I didn't like the ending. (mild spoilers ahead)

  The plot revolves around two siblings, a boy and a girl, whose lives were turned upside down when this mirror in their house began to mess with their parents' heads. It comes to a violent and tragic end with both parents dying and the boy being institutionalized.  Fast forward eleven years, and the boy is released from the institution with a clean bill of mental health. He finds out that his sister has tracked down the mirror, rigged it up in their old house, and has an elaborate system of checks and traps to not only break the mirror, but prove to everyone that the phenomenon is real.

  Okay, so. The mirror begins to gradually mess with the siblings. Show them things that aren't really there, immerse them in old memories, make them think they're in one room when they're actually in another. This leads to a series of wake-up moments, where the characters realize they're in a delusion and they snap out of it. They're always an inch away from accidentally killing themselves somehow when they snap out of it. This whole setup actually is pretty effective for the most part. As a viewer you're constantly on the edge of seat, wondering if what's going on is actually happening the way you see it happening.

  Yet, these wake-up moments begin to get tedious. Even a little redundant. The "shock" ending is another one of these wake-up moments. It's not shocking. It's a little frustrating, and it left me waiting for another wake-up moment. Alas, one that never comes. You know what does come though? The end credits.

  Oculus also shows us a very narrow story, one full of conflict and struggles too. The sister spends all of her free time researching the mirror- yet most, if not all of this research happens off screen. I love research scenes in horror movies. Where the heroine has to go to a dusty old library and dig through some historical records or something. The Conjuring dutifully had a few scenes like that. I enjoyed it. Oculus skips over things like that. More than that, the brother and the sister are not a united front against this evil threat.
Which may seem like a silly gripe, but it honestly just makes for long uncomfortable conversations that quickly get old. See, the brother has been convinced by endless psychiatrists that he made up the whole 'evil mirror' story to block out what really happened. The sister knows it wasn't made up, and she tirelessly tries to convince him it was all real.

  Now imagine for a second if he had always believed it was real and was dying to get out of the hospital so he could track down the mirror and destroy it. What do we really lose? Padding. Unnecessary padding. The tense dynamic between the two of them does nothing but waste time and detract from the events at hand. Subsequently, the mirror is never properly vilified. The movie spends so much time making you wonder if it's actually evil or if it's all made up that by the time you realize it's real it's too late to give character to the mirror. There was a brief scene, maybe a couple seconds, where the camera focuses on a part of the mirror that could look like eye sockets almost. It gave it a sinister scowl. An inert piece of furniture suddenly became scary... and then they never played to that tone again. The mirror itself was sidelined in the last act whereas I think it should've been center stage.

  In the end, I think the filmmaker's effort to be different was a double edged sword. Yes, they produced some genuine and unexpected scares, but they also sacrificed so much by tried to be different in every possible manner. The ending of the movie is the perfect example. The mirror is not destroyed. You could say it 'won', but there's no ominous vibe. In fact, there's no creepy victorious shot of the mirror to visually show us that it'll "live on" so to speak. The movie just ends. The mirror itself never gets an ending. The movie just kinda wraps up around it and doesn't even mention it when all is said and done. All of this because they wanted to stay away from even a vaguely stereotypical ending. So many loose ends, so many unresolved plot threads... the last act is a mess, albeit a scary and suspenseful mess. So, do I recommend Oculus? Yes. It it innovative and scary. Something which is rare in this day and age. Do I think it's a good movie though...? Not really.

  Some filmmakers should realize that employing certain tried and true tropes in your film won't hurt it, so long as you don't make your film entirely rely on those tropes. That's the lesson to be learned here. If you were hoping to learn how to destroy an evil haunted mirror... you're shit out of luck.

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