Movie Review – Oculus (2014)
Mirrors have been a favorite prop of filmmakers going back to the very beginning. In 1913’s The Student of Prague, the first feature length horror film, a malicious doppelganger is culled from the title character’s reflection. Mirrors symbolize self-examination, often resulting in fears of our own terrible potentials, and portals to other realities, making them a superb storytelling element which is all too often squandered by directors looking for a tired, silly jump scare. Occasionally horror filmmakers will make the mirror the focus, sometimes giving it malevolent agency, such as in 1945’s Dead of Night or 2008’s Mirrors, though rarely are such attempts successful.
S.S. Prawer, in his Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, writes of the effectiveness of mirrors in horror films: “Here claustrophobic and agoraphobic motifs come together. The mirror experience is claustrophobic when it hems us in and throws our own face back at us… It is agoraphobic when… the mirror opens out into an unfamiliar space, reflecting a room quite different from that in which it hangs.” The mirror may also “assert dark energies, allow glimpses of a repressed part of the personality, a world of violence and sexuality with which the characters cannot come to terms.” However,
“the mirror may be most disconcerting of all when it reflects nothing, registers an absence: the absence of a reflection, das verlorene Spiegelbild, an uncanny motif that runs from popular superstition via the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann to the vampire films of the thirties and sixties.
As has been often noted, mirrors have a relation to cinema-experience itself; their shadow-images admit us to what Cocteau called la zone, the realm between dream and reality, the tangible and evanescent” (pgs. 78-79).
2014’s Oculus effectively embraces and utilizes all of these aspects to impressive ends.
My first viewing of the film, written and directed by Mike Flanagan, was thoroughly enjoyable. My wife and I were impressed and the movie gave us a lot to talk about afterward. My second viewing was a solitary one, and as I sat in a dark room with only the dim glow of the television to keep me company I went to press play… and I hesitated. I don’t often get scared by horror films – it’s their macabre phantasmagorical quality that attracts me more than the frights – but Oculus unsettled me in ways I hadn’t appreciated the first time around. I had wanted to revisit it for a while, to see if it held up to a second, more scrutinizing viewing, and I was silently thankful that no mirrors adorned the walls in my room as I did so.
The plot centers on two adult siblings, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who come together to fulfill a vow they made as children – to kill the haunted mirror they believe is responsible for the deaths of their mother (Katee Sackhoff) and father (Rory Cochrane). The film continually shifts back to an earlier timeline when Kaylie and Tim were kids, revealing as the story progresses their prior experiences with the mirror. The narrative effortlessly alternates between the two timelines, and as the story progresses and the horror gets ramped up the timelines begin to converge in clever ways, ways which become an artistically viable way of allowing the audience to experience the characters’ disorientation without losing the plot. As the minutes pass the doom becomes ever more palpable.
The mirror manipulates and alters its victims’ perceptions, and our own fallible minds are a central theme in the story. Our understanding of the world is unreliable – our senses deceive us, our memories can be insufficient or even false, and our self-analysis can be our own worst enemy. Sackhoff as the mother, in a magnetic performance, embodies this in another way, through suggestions of body dysmorphia. Sackhoff is a beautiful actress of strong, stellar physique, yet her character’s self-esteem is teetering on the edge as she becomes overly conscious of her weight and a scar which she fears is becoming more visible. The mirror exploits fears and weaknesses to steadily grind down its targets, ultimately showing its beholders that which they fear. The father is seduced by the mirror and becomes convinced of his own maliciousness. “It is me,” he says as he looks at his own twisted reflection, “I’ve met my demons and they are many. I’ve seen the devil, and he is me.”
All of the performances are strong, including the actors who play the younger Kaylie and Tim. Truly, this is one of the best “children in peril” films I’ve seen, setting up an arc for the kids as they try their best to overcome the mirror and their dangerous parents while dedicating themselves to saving each other. For children, the notion of the adults you trust turning on you is terrifying. I recall being disturbed by Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) as a kid for that very reason. Oculus excels at this. Nevertheless, a powerful message of the importance of family runs throughout, and this makes the audience root for young Kaylie and Tim even more. Oculus is highly recommended; it is a smart, well-told horror tale with fantastic images and a continually growing sense of dread.