When you get down to filmmaking it’s all about inventiveness. The most time-honored stories have been around for a while but can always serve a purpose – if they’re told well enough. This applies to most movies, but specifically horror movies. Cabin in the Woods poked fun at the fact that basically all horror movie ideas are now cliché, but every now and then one can come along and shake things up if you’re creative enough. And sure enough, a recent wave of inventive horror has seen movies like Cabin…, The Conjuring, You’re Next, and the V/H/S series keeping the blood pumping in the genre.
I’m glad to add Oculus to the list.
Openly, this looked like a horrible movie from the previews and TV spots. Haunted mirrors have been used well for single scares in movies but have never served to keep an entire movie afloat. There’s something pretty obvious about the fear behind mirrors, that of your reflection moving independently of itself, and looking back on it just makes it even stranger that no one has been able to write a good story around a haunted mirror until now. Writer/director Mike Flanagan makes good use of a budget for his second feature to give us a truly unique horror movie, a classic story melded into a trippy mindfuck, making for a pretty intense experience.
The plot is a tricky one to describe without spoiling key points, as it concerns two separate timelines that spin together into a cohesive narrative. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is, and this specific concept turns a clichéd story into a wild ride. Overall the movie follows two siblings who are locating a specific mirror that they’re convinced is haunted and caused their father to go mad, killing their mom and disintegrating their family. The timeline goes back and forth between the original event with them as kids and their steps to find and destroy the mirror as adults in present day. As the movie continues, the mirror gains power and the lines between the timelines begin to blur. This is when the movie gets really cool.
A toast to a great idea well executed! There’s a great story here and the concept of two timelines presenting events that mirror each other throughout in a movie about a haunted mirror might be obvious, but it’s almost original. The actors all turn in fine performances, but special attention must be paid to the child actors that play the younger versions of the main characters. They really sell the tragedy of the situation and never fall into melodrama. For this reason the movie hits emotional notes that other horror movies don’t simply because they don’t put the time into building the characters and their relationships. This is all you have to do to give the events gravity and that’s what they do perfectly here.
Ummm, not that Gravity.
Other than that, the editing is the star of the show. The editing here is so inventive in the realm of cinema language that, forgive me but I have to go film school for a second. The way they edit between the two timelines is awesome. This movie accentuates the use of the edit in a movie as sleight of hand; in this movie they don’t follow normally assumed rules of cinema, where each cut is a chronological progression and the next shot follows the shot before it. Here they, dare I say, invent a new version of this film language where each cut resets the stage, so to speak, to the point where you must wait until things happen in a scene to orient yourself to where you are in the movie’s story. When the mirror starts manipulating their perspective this gets even crazier, with events playing out and then characters realizing these events haven’t happened at all, with all manner of false starts and fake outs. There are points towards the end that get downright exhilarating due to the reckless abandon with which they cut back and forth. Soon, the two narratives completely blur, and then – well, to saying any more would be to ruin an awesome movie-going experience.
Unfortunately, while most of it transcends cliché some of it falls into cliché, including the ending, which is shocking to an extent but mostly predictable. This is what plants the movie firmly in good B-movie territory. Some character actions are eye rolling, and the question of how much leeway families will give their parents that are in the process of going crazy was always on my mind. There comes a point where you just need to call the cops. They try to explain this as reasonably as they can, and I give them credit, but it’s just too much of a stretch here that veers into silliness. It’s amazing how honest all the emotion feels in the movie because horror often descends into melodrama when based on familial strife. Here the only problem is some of the key acting. Karen Gillan does a fantastic job but the hunky male main lead Brenton Thwaites is obviously there to look good and draw the teen female crowd, which he does well. See, I can compliment and insult at the same time. That’s a complisult, and if you get that reference you get an automatic 5 meow meow beenz.
It’s about as inventive and creative as you could want a horror movie to be. When it gets bloody it gets really bloody, but it never loses sight of the characters or the story and the movie benefits from that. Not for the faint of heart, but if you’re in the mood for a scare, Oculus is the right choice this spring. It might just have you going home and breaking all the mirrors in your house, bad luck be damned.
Take a Drink: when you see the glowing-eyed girl.
Take a Drink: each time you think they should just get the fuck out of the house already.
Take a Drink: each time something happens, then turns out to not have actually happened.
Double It: when it did actually happen, but you are meant to think it wasn’t and now I’m confused…
Drink a Shot: for the staple remover (you’ll know why, when it happens).