As far as horror movies go, Oculus is a decent example of what you can do with a small cast, limited set, and reduced budget. (Oculus rang in somewhere around $5 million and already has made 5-6x that much.) The uncomplicated color pallete remains effective; the minimalistic soundtrack (quietly relentless) becomes unnerving. All the acting is solid, although its Karen Gillan’s unapologetic candor as the older sister Kaylie that really sells the movie.
The storyline is simple. A rehabilitated psychiatric patient is reminded by his sister of his promise to help her destroy the evil mirror that caused their parents’ deaths and originally committed him. Act I manages to keep us teetering between which sibling is actually crazy; Act II then plays out the endgame of that decision while shifting ambiguity directly onto the characters’ perceptions of reality. (I was reminded strongly of an old X-Files’ episode, “Field Trip,” where Mulder and Scully find themselves breaking through various levels of a mutual hallucination and wondering in the end how they might ever recognize they’re actually free of the delusion.) How can you possibly emerge victorious when you can’t even be sure what is actually real?
The simple high concept is sold through the underlying tension and narrative craftsmanship. Flanagan takes the ballsy approach of flipping back and forth between the time lines — the characters both as children and as adults — and we learn as the current timeline proceeds what unfolded in the past. It’s like telling two stories simultaneously (a fast-paced variation on the narrative structure of Stephen King’s “It”). Despite a stream of edits and pacing nightmares, Flanagan never really loses the narrative thread, it all remains coherent, and I found this slipping back and forth between the time streams to be one of the more interesting as well as provocative parts of the movie, as there is a bit of the child in the adult and a bit of the adult in the child.
Childhood is a precarious time, especially in dysfunctional families, and it’s not just the physical harm that children are far more susceptible to, or the lack of power (no money, no social networks, no physical mobility to escape danger), it’s their as-yet amorphous perceptions of the world coupled with their need for their parents to calibrate reality. Since rejection and judgment by the parents is easily blamed on one’s own deficiencies as a human being, it’s so easy to lose one’s way, whether that dysfunction is organic in nature or instigated by the workings of a potentially evil supernatural force. (And since I keep tossing in references to other movies, might I mention Kubrick’s “The Shining” here?)
Here in Oculus, Daddy broods, swears off personal hygiene, and starts fiddling with the revolver in his desk; Mommy imagines him cheating, stops making meals, and finally goes rabid-dog cray-cray; it’s up to Kaylie and Timmy to figure out both their parents are nuts, that it’s not their fault (nor their parents), and then determine what reality is and how to save themselves even if Mommy and Daddy are too far gone to salvage. You kinda don’t blame either of them for being a little whack as young adults, after what they’ve been through; most adults wouldn’t hold up nearly as well. But it makes you wonder, if they had just both been a LITTLE more sane, if they could have just said, “Forget this,” walked off, let someone else deal with the mirror, and lived happily ever after? Mental health is reflected not just in how we chase what we chase but in what we realistically can choose to stop chasing.
It’s unfortunate that it feels like Flanagan wrote himself into a corner, as it’s not clear how the movie could have ended less predictably than it did. In this case, it was the journey that was the most fun, but oh what a journey it was.