Through The Looking Glass. (An Introduction.)
It's Halloween again! which means I get to strap on my 'Professor of Horror' cap (Just so long as there isn't anyone around who keeps track of who is, or isn't, actually a professor) and review the wonderful world of Horror and this year the first film to fall into my sights is the 2014 psychological supernatural haunter Oculus.
Directed by Mike Flanagan the film is based on a short film 'Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan' which is also directed by Flanagan with this full length version starring Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as siblings who reunite eleven years after a mirror may, or may not, have caused the death of their parents in hopes of uncovering the truth.
The story is told through two different time frames (present day and eleven years earlier) with the two stories happening parallel to one another through the use of time jumps (and later hallucinations).
The story uses a very clever trick to establish two distinct view points to the nature of the mirror.
After the events of their childhood trauma Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has spent the next eleven years in a mental institution being 'cured' of his 'delusion' that a mirror was responsible for his parents' descent into madness and subsequent deaths, while his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent that time alone in the world plotting out a way to prove the mirror's malevolence and ultimately destroy it once and for all.
Horror Films teach us to never move into a new house - EVER!
And also to never return to your childhood home - EVER!
Mirror, Mirror. (The Mirror...On The Wall.)
While haunted or demonic mirrors are fairly common in the world of the supernatural never before have I seen one so well utilized as it plays with its victims perspective of what's real and playing on their own sense of reality, it's a horror film that excels at getting in your head and having a good poke around.
I have always found myself drawn to horror movies which deal with the matter of the mind, as reality is blurred and disorientated until it becomes difficult to differentiate between whether what is happening is real or a figment of the victims warped mind.
From the very start Oculus excels at offering two explanations to every incident, one of which is a more logical assumption to an apparently paranormal problem while the other suggests the powers of the mirror.
Naturally as the film progresses and the chaos escalates it becomes more and more difficult to believe in the rational explanation as the scale of each incident increases towards the film's ultimate climax (to both present day and 11 years ago situations) but for a great deal of the film almost all the early in childhood craziness is presented with rational and logical explanations.
The general set up of Horror films often require characters to make needlessly stupid decisions (running up the stairs rather than out the front door to safety) but every single decision in Oculus is perfectly understandable and the few that are a little more questionable can be attributed to the mirrors influence (Did I just call for help or did the mirror just make me 'think' that I called for help?)
The two characters are never shown to take the mirrors threat lightly, setting up several well thought out precautions to protect themselves from its influence, but unfortunately the mirror is smart enough to find ways to use the precautions to its own advantage.
While the mirror's origin and source of power are never expressly revealed (The less you know, the more you fear) over the course of the film we (the audience) are able to assemble a detailed picture of just what the mirror is capable of and how it functions, from leeching the life from houseplants, to its means of self defense, the mirror is a menacing entity in its own right.
Its ultimate weapon is disorientation and this allows for both great horror moments (Think that's an apple you're eating?) and some of the films more surreal scenes such as past and present versions of the characters switching in and out of the current situation, the mirror is able to force the adult siblings to react like scared children by simply making them believe that they 'are' children.
The separate time frames that the film initially implements to inform the audience a) just what the mirror is capable of and b) inflicted upon Kaylie and Tim in the past devolves into a wibbly wobbly timey wimey nightmare (come on, it's Karen Gillan!!! That allows me at least one Doctor Who joke) as past and present collide in the final act
Kaylie sets up three cameras to monitor the mirror and record any signs of paranormal activity. Fortunately the film doesn't descend into the handheld/found footage formula but instead uses the footage to tell the audience a little more about the way in which the mirror can influence people without them realizing it which is a much better use of the devices in terms of storytelling.
See Yourself. (The Cast.)
While the cast is small (only focusing on four characters, played by six actors) the female cast is headed by two of my favourite actresses Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Katee Sackhoff (Riddick) both of whom are thankfully emerging from the world of TV to the film projects that they more than deserve, but the acting is strong from everyone in the ccast including (or especially) the two child actors who play the younger versions of the brother and sister (Annalise Basso as young Kaylie and Garrett Ryan as young Tim).
Rory Cochrane is compelling as the children's father who is slowly indoctrinated into becoming the mirror's puppet.
The sibling duo are well established as individual people as the film gives plenty of time to explore their unique mental states towards both the mirror and each other with each pitying the other for their 'delusion' towards their past.
I stated in my article that explored whether Horror Movies are as good as they used to be that character development is key to successful scary movie writing because if the audience doesn't care about a character then why would they be invested in whether or not they live or die? and Oculus at least seems to understand that simple truth as I found myself honestly caring about what would happen to these characters.
Seeing Is Believing. (Conclusions.)
While the film never reaches terrifying in terms of scares it is nonetheless able to build up an ever increasing sense of dread as the precautions that Kaylie has so carefully devised are slowly stripped away along with the character's sense of reality.
The film is well directed, well acted and incredibly edited and far too often horror films get looked down upon simply due the nature of the genre but Oculus is easily one of the smartest films I have ever seen, its small scale horror, only following (mainly) two characters (albeit in two different time periods) in (largely) a single location (albeit in two different time periods) but this allows time for the film to focus on these characters exploring their relationship with one another, who they are as individuals after the traumatic experiences of their childhood have impacted upon their lives before they are thrust back into the jaws of hell and mirror begins mangling their minds before it even begins to take an interest in mangling their bodies.