Monday, August 4, 2014

Oculus Chapter 3 - The Man With The Plan: 2 Hours Of Story In A 30-Minute Bag

I’ve always thought horror lends itself well to the short form, at least in fiction. It benefits from brevity and an ending that comes before you can think about what you read too much. It gets in, does its work, and gets out. It’s the rare horror novel I read that doesn’t drag a little at points, because it can be hard to sustain a sense of unease or dread over an extended narrative. What I’m starting to discover, though, is that that doesn’t necessarily hold true for films. I’m not sure what it is, but I think having to sit with the images in front of you does something to sustain mood in a way that parsing words doesn't. There are exceptions - see the first V/H/S film - but I think the successes really make a case for the need for pacing. In a long-form film, you can get away with a little drag or a little bloat if you pay it off, but in a short film you need to be bang-on with your pacing, economic with your setup, and concise with the means you use to evoke emotions in the viewer. You’ve cut out all of your margin for error.

Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With The Plan tries to cram a feature-length story into a short film, and I think it suffers as a result.

It’s a very simple setup. There’s a man named Tim, and he’s sitting in a room with three video cameras, some food and water, two phones, a voice recorder, and two alarm clocks. He’s arranged for the delivery of an antique mirror to this room, and as the film begins he’s signing for the delivery. Nervously, he asks the deliverymen to place the mirror on an easel and to cover it with a sheet, all the time his back to them. Once they’ve gone, Tim begins explaining the history of this mirror - which dates back from the 1700s and is known as the Lasser Glass. Throughout the centuries, people who have owned this mirror have come to sudden, violent, and often inexplicable ends, usually in the room where the mirror is kept. It is rumored to be cursed or haunted, and after extensive research into its history, Tim has secured the glass, for the purpose of testing it, experimenting with it, and getting the results on tape to determine once and for all what effect it has. He has three video cameras on independent power sources, all aimed at the mirror. He has two phones - a landline to a specific number, and a cell phone on which a friend will call him every hour to make sure he’s okay. He has food and water, alluding to a particular case from the mirror’s history in which this seemed to be a concern. He has two alarm clocks - one to remind him to change the tapes, and one to remind him to eat and drink. He has taken precautions, he is careful and methodical.

He is the man with the plan.

In this, the subtitle essentially tells us what we need to know. Tim is one of those people (typically men) who are determined to see science, technology, and reason triumph over the supernatural. Tim isn’t so much trying to prove that the Lasser Glass isn’t cursed, though, he’s trying to prove that it is, and so he’s using the tools of rationality to defeat the mirror. He’s actively adversarial toward the mirror, taunting it and provoking it. Of course, things can only end badly for Tim, the rest of the film - the mirror’s provenance established - is just a matter of how badly and in what ways.

The simple setup is very much to the film’s advantage. This was obviously (though not to a distracting extent, with some exceptions) made on a low budget, and the premise works with that. One man, one mirror, one room. For most of its run, the film uses very little things well - point of view does a lot of work here in terms of subjectivity and objectivity. There are essentially three points of view here. There’s what we see, there’s what Tim sees, and then there’s what the cameras see, and the consonance and dissonance between these three perspectives makes for nice little creepy details to which no attention is called. They’re just there in the background or the foreground, quietly announcing that something is not quite right. There are sudden reveals or shifts in perspective that accomplish the same thing, the sense that in this room, we can’t trust anything to be what it seems, even in this tiny space. Tense moments are punctuated not by musical stings, but by phones ringing and alarms going off. For the most part, the first two-thirds of the film are a nice exercise in horror in miniature, minimal setting, simple premise, little things doing a lot.

The weak link for the majority of the film is Tim’s portrayal. When you’ve only got one person in the film, they have to do a lot work, but in a case like this, when you’re basically telling the story of one person’s mental disintegration in the presence of a cursed object, restraint is critical. You have to believe that this is a typical guy who is going to some very weird places in his head because of this evil mirror, and Tim gets played a little too over the top too quickly - the idea is that the mirror affects people and makes them do things they wouldn't otherwise, but Tim seems pretty unstable right from the get-go, and it gives his disintegration less power than it would otherwise. He’s played sort of loud and already kind of mad-scientisty instead of as a quiet, rational person doing terrible things in an equally quiet and rational way, so the movie tips its hand a little in that respect. We also learn over the course of the film that Tim’s interest in the mirror isn’t strictly objective, and though it makes sense that he has personal history with the mirror, it feels a little too on-the-nose and maybe a little more than the narrative of a short film can handle.

This sense of trying to do too much also contributes to the film’s biggest stumble as it concludes. The climax of the film gives away a little more about the mirror than the budget can really handle, so what was minimal becomes more obviously low-budget, and it moves away from the objectivity/subjectivity that works for the first two thirds or so in favor of a literalism that doesn’t really seem all that effective or convincing given what came before. Given everything we know about the mirror, the very end is also sort of anticlimactic and a little confusing. It feels like it’s trying to bring in a ton of mythology about the mirror and tie it to Tim’s own experience and show us what the mirror really does, but the nature of this particular approach isn’t really up to the task and so the end really doesn’t use any of the film’s strengths to its advantage.

I sympathize with the filmmakers - apparently this is one of nine possible stories the writer and director have thought up about the Lasser Glass (hence being Chapter 3), and certainly the cursed-object angle is great for multiple films because it can use an anthology format instead of serial sequels. Indeed, this preceded the recent feature-length film that shares its name, and is presumably one of the other nine stories they've thought up. I can understand wanting to tell a lot of story, and the short film is a tough format in which to work because you've only got so much time to set up the premise, build up a mood and then pay it off. The scale is small, the tools are simple and generally well executed, it just tries to do too much in the end and that sort of blows the tight, minimal vibe it had going in. If you can scare people with a whisper or a voice or a sudden change of perspective, work that angle instead of trying to go bigger.

IMDB entry

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