Friday, March 27, 2015

Oculus: Past Is Prologue

One of the more annoying narrative devices to show up a lot in horror film is the opening flashback. It’s usually a short, tense scene that ends with someone dying, usually though not always punctuated by someone else screaming, and then a title indicating that now it’s 15 years later or some shit like that. You can trace this at least as far back as Halloween, and I've discovered, having watched a fair number of films in the course of writing this thing, that this construction shows up a lot, and frankly it’s sort of tiresome. Like, yes, we know something bad has happened here or that the place has a terrible history or whatever - it’s a horror film, we didn't expect everything to be okay. Honestly, I think more horror films could benefit from the surprise evoked when we have no idea where the threat is going to be coming from instead of telegraphing it in the first ten minutes. Sometimes it’s used well, to set up reversed expectations or to misdirect, but just as often it’s a quick scare to say “oooohhhh! Bad things on the way!” That’s lazy and cheap.

But that’s a lot of words to basically say “flashbacks bad” when I’m about to turn around and talk about Oculus, which, although suffering from being less subtle than it could in places, is a deft exercise in examining the past’s effects on the present.

We meet siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell when they are very young, and something bad has happened. Their father has done something terrible, and little Tim - not more than ten years old - shoots his father to death. This is all revealed in a flashback, presented as a dream that now-adult Tim, 11 years later, has as a resident of a mental hospital. In this dream, he finally saw himself - not his father - holding the gun, and this is judged to be progress. He’s finally accepted his role in what happened, and he’s being released. Not really groundbreaking stuff, but it does set up much of the film’s thesis going forward - the intrusion of past on the present, the unreliability of memory, and the vagaries of perception.

Upon release, Tim reconnects with Kaylie, who grew up in foster care while Tim was hospitalized. She’s engaged and has a great job at an auction house. She’s delighted to see Tim, and any awkwardness he worried about dissipates quickly. Kaylie’s glad to see him out, wants to help him get set up on his own, and the sooner the better. See, she needs his help.

Everything that happened, Kaylie explains, happened because of an antique mirror their father had hanging in his home office. This mirror - called the Lasser Glass, after its first owner - has a long and bizarre history. The people who own it tend to die in very, very strange ways. Kaylie’s used her contacts in the world of antiques and estates to track the mirror, and she’s finally managed to secure it. She needs Tim’s help to destroy it, once and for all. She’s brought the mirror back to their family home, and she’s set up elaborate recording equipment and failsafes. She’s intent on proving that the mirror has supernatural qualities, that it was responsible for the death of their parents, and then she wants to destroy it, once and for all.

As far as Tim’s concerned, he’s just gotten out of the hospital to discover that his sister is barking mad.

What follows is an exercise in temporal, perceptual, and narrative unreliability. The film is about a cursed mirror, and so it reflects (ha-ha) distortions of both perception (we are not as we see ourselves in the mirror) and memory (we do not remember things as they happened). By placing the protagonists back in their childhood home, it enables the film to superimpose past experience upon present events, which works both as a narrative device and as an instantiation of the mirror's power - past and present blur both for us and for the protagonists, what they see (and so what we see) is not what is, and as the movie progresses the lines between these two things blur further and further until the end is almost a complete superimposition of one over the other. As viewers, we are as lost and unsure of what is real and what is illusion as the protagonists are, and only become aware of the terrible truth when it is too late. The use of recording devices gives us a perceptual counterpoint - we see the characters do something, and then see a playback that indicates something else entirely. We’re also subject to the unreliability associated with cinema - we see everything one way in one shot, and then in the next it has changed. We end up as wrong-footed by the depiction of events as the protagonists are by their experience of them.

In addition to the narration, the characterization is also nicely unreliable - none of these people are really fleshed out all that much, but you expect Tim to be the unstable one, having just been released from a mental hospital, but it becomes clear very quickly that he's the more stable of the two. Kaylie, having had to deal with the trauma of what happened when she was a child without any sort of professional help, has grown up to be someone who, on the surface, looks happy and accomplished, but it is a pretty skin stretched tight over the bones of obsession. Her entire life has led to this point.  Likewise, in the past, what could have been a stock-standard story of “one parent goes nuts, terrorizes the other” is complicated by an instability that seems to have nothing to do with the supernatural. Yes, their parents could be falling under the spell of an evil mirror, sure, or they could just be snapping from the stress of a recent relocation and starting a new business. Nothing is as it seems, textually, subtextually, or metatextually.

From a technical standpoint, Oculus shares a lot of the same strengths as the director's previous film Absentia - the juxtaposition of the supernatural with human failings like guilt and denial, a restrained and assured compositional style that doesn't telegraph every single scary moment - but the jump from indie filmmaking to something more mainstream means that some of the subtlety that hallmarked that film is lost. Music stings are a little intrusive, dialogue (especially in the beginning) is a little too baldly expository, the evil nature of the mirror is underscored a little too neatly (do we really need all of the whispering to tell us that the mirror is evil?) and all of this maybe makes the film a little more conventional than it should be. It feels at points as if the audience is being underestimated - not outright condescended to, but there were more than a few moments where things could have been even more underplayed and it would have still been really effective, if not moreso. It's a much less…crowded…film than the short with which it shares a title, confirming my hunch in its case that the short’s story was solid but needed more time to be told. This feature-length film borrows a lot of story conceits from the short, and giving them more time and room to breathe helps the premise tremendously.

The whole experience is one of characters and audience alike being immersed in the madness of the mirror, leaving you with the lingering feeling that even what you saw on the screen may not "really" be what happened, that there is some reality beyond the construct of the film, and we aren't getting the full story, which - shortcomings and disappointing conventionalities aside - is a hell of a trick for a piece of fiction to pull off.
I'm not one for sequels, but given the idea that the mirror is the character here, with a long and bloody history, and both this film and the preceding short are blissfully free of fussy mythology, I actually wouldn't mind seeing more tales of the Lasser Glass, especially if it remains as remote, sinister, and implacable as it does here.

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