Movie Review: Oculus (Spoilers)

I don't get the pic, but it's the best I could find without taking a pic of the movie with my own camera.

I don’t get the pic, but it’s the best I could find without taking a pic of the movie with my own camera.

I love a good story. I heard a lot about this movie before I bought it, from word-on-the-street insights to the amount of effort being put into the thing. The previews were also amazing to watch, and enticed me: a movie that promised to be The Shining, The Yellow Wallpaper, AND some twisted timeline take on IT?

Yes, please! I’ll take seconds. Given it’s Halloween, Magnolia and I took an evening to sit back and enjoy the show. Here’s my thoughts on the movie. (SPOILERS A-COMING)

I often talk about the “passion” of a writer/director, where you see moments of singing–or screaming–that takes your breath away. Where, no matter what the situation, the effect explodes before you.

This movie doesn’t have it. I call it Inspirationless. It’s a theme that, if you’ve been reading me for a while, I put particular emphasis on. Let me explain.

BUT FIRST! Overview.

Name: Oculus
Year Made: 2013
Genre: Horror (I’d call it psychological, with horror elements)
Director/Writer: Mike Flanagan (writer/director of a whole slew of movies/tv shows I’ve never heard of/never watched)
Producers: Same guys that brought us Insidious (and where, after the fact, I realize I put a LOT of weight on it)

Siblings reunite after brother emerges from a mental institute due to a house-wide mental break where mother is killed by father and father is killed by brother. Sister doesn’t emerge unscathed, but that doesn’t show up until later. Sis believes the whole thing happened due to a 700 (give or take) year old mirror that eats people and animals and plants, first psychologically (if it can), and then literally. If you’re around the mirror too long, you disappear forever.

So sis wants to first PROVE what happened to her father and mother was the work of something supernatural, THEN destroy it, and brother just wants to convince her to get out and leave the dead stay dead. The mirror has other thoughts: it tries to eat them, Little Shop of Horrors style, until they either succeed in destroying it or it succeeds in chomping down. Hilarity ensues until climax! The brother accidentally kills the sister instead of breaking the mirror, as wholly expected throughout the movie.

Initial Thoughts while watching movie:

Alright. This is a movie of weak writers, lazy writing, and a lack of vision. The production value is high, looks nice, feels complex and works very, very hard to confuse the viewer with timeline and is he/she dead? moments.

The scenery, which involves two versions of the house (one in modern day, mostly without furniture, the other in what I have to imagine the late ’90’s), brings little interest to me. It’s a regular upper middle-class crib, full of thick wood and new countertops, manicured lawn and cream carpet.

Somewhere before things go nonlinear (I’ll get to this in a moment), while Sis tries to convince Bro he wasn’t crazy (!?) and the mirror actually DID kill their parents, she says, flat-out, the Oculus controls their brains, so they need food/water alarms, tape-changing (for the recorders) alarms, and a kill-switch reset where all they had to do was NOT reset it, and the Oculus gets shattered.

This in itself removed all sense of dependability with anyone. It literally threw all the rules out the window, said “Good luck!” to the audience, and dove down a massive log flume of a toilet with nothing for the audience to hold on to. Everything they did, everything they said, to me, no longer mattered, because LITERALLY EVERYTHING was suspect. And this was true. Sis ate a lightbulb that was actually an apple, yet bled for a good minute on-screen before realizing she had grabbed the right bulb on the counter, after all. Fiancee calls–no idea if he was real–fiancee dies–no idea if it was real–they escape the house–no idea if they actually did–etc. The Protags made absolutely NO headway throughout the movie, from start to finish.

Weak storytelling from the get-go. Weak as you can imagine. “NOTHING IS RELIABLE. EVER.” Does not a good story make.

Somewhere after they wake Oculus up by feeding a dog to it (yep. But didn’t kill it), it’s revealed nothing supernatural ACTUALLY happens, physically, in the real world. It shows the two of them changing cameras around when clearly, earlier, they weren’t aware of doing it. They simply coexist in a mind job of a prison (which usually I LOVE). When they get into each others’ heads (I call this Act 3, where Act 1 was before they got to the house, and Act 2 was expo on the experiment/backstory), the linear story splits.

Act 3 breaks linear storytelling by teleporting both Bro and Sis to the past, sometimes with them being adults, and sometimes with them being children. If executed properly, this is a kickass way to give a psychologically complex backstory: reliving the violent past by literally re-living it and navigating the craziness WITH the Protag. It’s cool. I believe that’s where the meat of the story was, given the fact the “modern” story was a bunch of running and “Oops. I’m awake. Rush rush rush to reset timers.” This is why the literal flashback sequence is bad: Modern Day is uninteresting, and none of her planning matters whatsoever. WHY? It. Has. Total. Control. Always. And no new revelations show up in the past. Just pickles (I’ll get to this a little later).

So the movie has little twists and turns you expect, all the little jump scares that’re required for a modern “horror” movie, and a few somewhat important revelations (mostly surrounding how people died), some spectral creepiness that had no place in the story except for cheap scares, and the obligational “SEE! I WAS RIGHT! I’M TOTALLY NOT CRAZY!” moments. Somewhere later in the movie I thought, “aaah! I know where this might be going,” and got excited again. Why? I saw a way to tie it all into the original violence, where the ending was the conclusion of the violence Bro thought he spent six years undoing. It would have been awesome. Unfortunately, the ending was as weak as the writing led me to believe: Bro releases the kill switch, seeing nobody in the room with him, and the anchor (cool bit of symbolism if pursued, but, nope) nearly decapitates sis. No. Didn’t scathe the Oculus she slammed against with all the force of a skull connecting with momentum from a crowbill.

It ends with police showing up, the brother having ACTUALLY called out to police earlier (when we were led to believe it wasn’t possible: Oculus never let any other calls out. Why this one?), and the whole scene showing Bro murdering Sis in a repeat of the initial crazy violence. Roll Credits where the Evil Thing Wins.

Thoughts after sleeping on it:

I know exactly what the writer/director Flanagan tried to do: he wanted a reversal of the horror show, where the Observer believes it’s truly supernatural, but in the end, it’s just the psychosis of the two siblings continuing on down the family line. Mom and Dad really DID go nuts. And then Siblings. And the Oculus was just a lame old mirror, after all.

I’d have to watch it again to see if the plants were all wilted at the end. Of course, the plants could always HAVE been wilted, from the start, before they even walked into the house. No way to confirm it. As I said: weak.

What I liked about it:

OH MY GOD I loved the premise. This is a return to the Gothic Poe, the Lovecraft, the 1800’s creepy. I saw hints of The Shining (with the father being the first to be controlled by the mirror),  The Yellow Wallpaper (in the psychological premise), the Telltale Heart, and It (in the way they are revisiting an old horror from childhood to finally remove it). The idea of such a relic (the mirror) simply creeps me out by thinking about it. I LOVED the idea of it. Still do. In fact… I might try and write something better.

How the writer/director could have made this movie great:

I won’t just complain about a poorly-written movie. I’ll give opinions on how he could have gained my approval as a critic and a writer:

1) Rules. You gotta have rules in these movies. The Can’t Leave The House rule, or The Color Red Means Reality, or whatever. Small signs, hints, anything stating “This is reality,” and “This is all in my head” for the Observer. Otherwise I lose interest. Or something they stumble upon while fighting this psychological war, via past or present or whatever. I mean, literally, no matter what they did, it could ultimately be the work of the mirror. They could have both been staring at the mirror the whole movie and the Observer wouldn’t have known any better. For some arbitrary, the mirror sometimes decided to let them go as a joke, or allowed them reality checks. Then they overthought it (because they were under NO control of themselves), and returned to the environment after escaping because, well, they were 80 feet from the home and still saw themselves inside: If the thing has an area of influence, and they are out of said influence area, then they are no longer influenced by the mirror. Oh wait. It could also project the dead as real, and the living as real, and literally anything it wanted within its radius.

1a) Either the mirror can control minds within a certain radius, or it can project visages of the dead, with physical and violent forms, within a certain radius. Pick one. This bad boy had waaay too many powers.

2) Sympathy. This movie took steps to ACTIVELY REMOVE sympathetic connections to the two main characters. It hurt my interest. Neither character is particularly interesting besides their looks, which really wasn’t impressive in the first place (Doctor Who, where apparently Grownup Sis is from, isn’t my strong suit. British quasi-science doesn’t interest me). They needed to be developed, interesting, and given a f***ing fighting chance.

3) If you’re going non-linear with your storyline, you MUST balance the story in BOTH lines. This is imperative. If you read Lord of the Rings, like I have, you’ll possibly nod your head when I say this: the chapters where Frodo walks a desolate wasteland carries NO interest to me when the other characters are slaughtering orcs. Period. I know this isn’t the exact same, but I skipped whole chunks of story because of this. The reason why I got through those novels was my deep-seated adoration for the scenes of value, which depleted while I read the scenes of wandering. But this hurt the readership of LOTR. And for me, it hurt this movie.

4) If you’re going to say NOTHING is reliable to the Protagonists/Observer, at least get creative with how they succeed against (in my opinion) INSURMOUNTABLE odds. I wanted, SO BAD, to see a creative end to the mirror instead of just “Whoops. Another one bites the dust.” Such a no-brain copout. Given this director has been working on the idea since AT LEAST 2006, he had plenty of time to figure out an ending that exonerated the violently abused characters.

5) If you’re playing the “these characters are just batshit crazy” angle, give the Observer hints. Give the Observer ANYTHING. The only thing I caught, throughout the movie, that this MIGHT be the case, was the fact the refrigerator had pickles in it, in the same place, in the past and in the present–with an emphasis that the Present pickles were shown first–giving credence the Protags might be fabricating the past from the present, as they went on. Of course it could mean anything: nobody cleared out the fridge, coincidence and it means nothing, or whatever. Give us a break! Just because Nothing is Reliable to the Protags, doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain level of reliability to the Observer. Or your movie fails.

This movie fails. If I were there to watch a visually interesting movie, I’d give it an 8/10. If I liked the actors, I might have given it more. Since I don’t give a flip about pretty, pretty lights, I’m giving it a 2/10.

This is a ghost story with more mist than grist.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Oculus (Spoilers)

  1. Shit, how’d I miss this?

    I’d say I wanted to see it, but um. Maybe not so much after this review. Personal opinion is, if you’re taking on a complex plot, you need to be good at plot development, or at least willing, like you said, to expend some time and energy to see it through. This is where the focus lies for some people, for some people (and I’m one of these, I truly am) it isn’t. But you need to recognize where your skills lie and your story is going and work from there.

    Also, the whole ‘maybe there’s supernatural shit going on, but they’re really insane’ thing has definitely been done before. It can be creepy as hell when it’s done right. When it isn’t–when, like it sounds here, the whole plot collapses for the sake of the visual–it falls flat on its face.

    • It’s alright! You’ve been busy.

      I have a hypothesis that everyone, everywhere, is trying to automate the creative process like they’re automating everything else in business. I saw this same crap in the video game Destiny. It seems some number-cruncher who’s never touched a screenplay tells a director to Search Engine Optimize the movie with X scenes of closeups on the girl, Y scenes of gore and violence, Z scenes with creepy-looking people in the dark, etc. The story dies with the numbers, the number-cruncher blames the director, and everyone goes home bent.

      The CEO hires someone who will bow to the instruction of the number-cruncher, thus perpetuating the silly greedfest.

      I agree completely! This movie was all about visual value. Story, setting, continuity all suffered on a fundamental level. Unfortunate.

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