“Oculus” Has an Eye for Editing

Oculus

Oculus (Mike Flanagan, 2013)

I am not a particular connoisseur (or fan) of the horror genre. Occasionally, I find myself blown away by films like The Others (if that ghost story counts), Let the Right One In or even The Ring, not to mention such older classics as The Shining or The Haunting, or true classics like Frankenstein. But I do not seek out scary films, and so I am far from the target demographic of Oculus. I will say, however, that the clever parts of this new film from Towson University alumnus Mike Flanagan (Absentia) will probably appeal to all cinema fans, regardless of genre preference. Even if I did not ultimately enjoy the story – I tuned out at about two-thirds of the way through – I found much to admire in the movie’s stylized editing: its temporal and spatial ellipses and shifts were almost breathtaking at times. The film geek in me was pleased until the narrative storyteller reared his ugly head and asked for greater coherence and follow-through.

Oculus tells the story of a mirror possessed by a malevolent supernatural force that compels people to commit horrible suicidal and murderous acts by manipulating the reality around them so they realize not what they do. In the course of the film, we learn that said mirror has existed for hundreds of years, leaving a barely traceable trail of destruction in its evil wake – after all, if it looks like suicide and murder, why would anyone suspect anything different? Well, it turns out that 11 years prior to the main events of the film, Kaylie (played as an adult by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who” fame) and her brother Tim (played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites of Blue Lagoon: The Awakening) had survived attacks by their mirror-controlled parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), and actually witnessed the physical manifestation of the evil force. Now, the 21-year-old Tim is being released from the mental ward where he has stayed ever since, and Kaylie – who has spent the same years in foster homes researching the mirror’s past – greets him with the news that the time has come to take their revenge. Back they go to their old house, where Kaylie installs the mirror in its former place. She has a plan to defeat the power within. But the mirror has been waiting, and knows how to defend itself.

Much of the film consists of marvelous editing tricks, where we cut seamlessly back and forth between the present and the past, the real and the fantasy, the memory and the nightmare. We think we’re in one space, only to discover that we’ve been fooled by the mirror and are actually elsewhere. Flanagan, who also edited, deserves full credit here for creating a wonderfully paranoid atmosphere where nothing is what it seems. Unfortunately, his lead actress (Gillan) has a tendency to overact with her eyes (perhaps appropriate for a film entitled Oculus), though Sackhoff (Starbuck on the  “Battlestar Galactica” reboot) is terrific. The film also features lovely production and costume design (I was  a big fan of the green blouse which complemented Gillan’s red hair). Unfortunately, it’s at the script level that Oculus falls apart, as there’s only so many gotcha surprises we can tolerate before we stop caring. Also, at some point, it becomes clear how ill-matched the one side is against the other, so the ending lacks suspense. Sure, there are some creepy visuals (those glowing eyes in the reanimated spirits are not pleasant to look at), but those don’t make up for the missing chills and thrills.

Still, there is plenty to recommend, and if you like the genre, I suggest you give Oculus a try.

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