Blu-ray Review: OCULUS

Mike Flanagan's indie horror hits home video, and BC takes a look. 

I was mixed on Oculus when I saw it in theaters this past April, on the opening night of its rather respectable box office run. And yes, respectable - its $27 million total doesn't seem impressive, but when you consider that's a lot higher than the big budget I, Frankenstein, the endlessly marketed Devil's Due, and the PG-13 (read: more accessible) The Quiet Ones, I think its producers can give themselves a pat on the back. Plus it cost a lot less than those other films, and only had a pair of cult TV stars (Battlestar's Katee Sackhoff and Doctor Who's Karen Gillan) to draw in audiences that might otherwise not be too interested in a haunted mirror movie (and who can blame them? This niche sub-genre tends to be pretty dire).

But what drew me in was the director, Mike Flanagan, who made the terrific indie Absentia a couple years back. Oculus was the feature version of a short he had made prior to Absentia as a sort of calling card (it worked!), so I was excited to see what he'd do with a bigger budget, and had faith he could succeed where others had failed (seriously, haunted mirror movies always bite - the Amityville one was the worst of the lot, and that is a pretty lousy series in general). His short only had a single character, so unlike some other shorts turned features he actually had to do more than "just make it longer". The movie concerns Kaylie (Gillan) an antiques dealer who tracks down the mirror their father owned when her and her younger brother Tim were children. The mirror, she believes, is to blame for a tragedy that left their parents dead and Tim in an institution, and now she plans to prove it. Alas, I walked out a bit disappointed; there was stuff I liked (the flashbacks with Gillan's character as a kid, the fun mind-fuck moments) but the clunky opening and the not-great performance from the guy playing Gillan's brother kept me from ever really connecting to it. However, I felt it was the sort of movie I might like more on a 2nd viewing, and at home, where its quiet, minimalist approach might be more suitable than on a 60 foot screen.

And I was right! There's no saving the brother's performance, but knowing that the opening is a bit awkward made it easier to digest. I know the old phrase "I could watch (name of desirable performer) read the phone book!" can easily apply to Gillan, but that's not far from what she actually has to do early on - we've barely been introduced to these characters or this world before she is delivering a nearly endless monologue about the mirror's murderous history, where every previous owner met a horrible fate. You know in just about every haunted house movie where the hero goes to the library or finds a bunch of newspapers about the bad things that happened there before? Those scenes usually occur about an hour into the movie, once we've seen the threat to our heroes for ourselves. Here, we're only 15-20 minutes in and haven't seen anything happen, so hearing Gillan just ramble anecdotes when we still aren't even fully connected to her character makes the movie feel aimless. Worse, the audience surrogate is the aforementioned not-great actor, which doesn't help matters any. I don't want this bland dude speaking for me!

That said, I admire Flanagan's attempt to get all the exposition and backstory out of the way early, allowing everything from that point to be focused on revealing what really happened to them as kids (the movie starts with the now-adult brother being released from an institution, having served his time for whatever he allegedly did "that night"), while cutting back to the present day where they are trying to get proof of the mirror's supernatural powers before destroying it for good. Like I said earlier, the flashbacks were a highlight, and it's a bit odd that the part of the movie where the outcome is known is more arresting than the present day when we DON'T know what will happen, but the split is a fun way around the usual haunted house movie structure. We get the scare in the present day, and then rather than see our hero ask questions or try to tell someone what's going on and get laughed at, we get a flashback that fills in that sort of information while laying out its own little mystery (i.e. did Tim really kill their father, or did the mirror do it?). So even if it doesn't work perfectly, it proves that Flanagan isn't interested in making the usual generic haunted house movie, which is a relief in a world oversaturated with Paranormal Activity clones (and sequels) that no one can tell apart.

After I came home from the theater a few months back I was bummed to discover that the original short was nowhere to be found online, but I'm sure Fox is happy about it, as it will make their blu-ray release more enticing - the 32 minute "short" is included along with optional commentary by Flanagan. It's definitely worth a look, both as an intriguing horror short and (with commentary) a lesson in single location filmmaking, with Flanagan explaining how he had to frame his shots carefully to avoid seeing himself in the monitors (as with the feature, the hero has a few cameras filming the mirror to try to catch it in the act), and how some of the electric cords on the floor are actually powering his camera, not any of the equipment on screen. Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy also provide commentary for the feature itself, definitely worth a listen if you like a good technical discussion (among other reveals, Flanagan emphasizes how tricky it was to shoot the film out of order and with two separate casts as the flashback scenes and present day ones often overlap), and there are a handful of deleted scenes (ALSO with optional commentary) as well. Some are worthless, but the early ones (before Gillan's monologue), definitely should have been left in the movie, as they give us a little more time with these characters, rounding them out a bit before one turns into an exposition machine and the other, well, listens to it. A rather bland making of piece is also included; it seems like promotional fluff but it spoils the ending, so I'm not sure who it was made for. Fox has also included a digital copy for people who think watching a 2.35 movie is best suited for their fucking iPhone.

(Tech qualities are fine; someone once complained that I didn't mention the quality of the transfer - I only bother if something is wrong.)

A while back I proposed that Fox/Relativity promote this release by having folks make short films based on the stories Gillan tells about the mirror's previous owners - obviously they didn't take my advice, but there is definitely some fun to be had exploring this mirror's past (or future; I assume it did well enough to at least try to make a DTV sequel). The current day story seems to be one of the mirror's less inspired hauntings, but the flashbacks and Flanagan's less-cliched approach to scare scenes make it worth a look. Plus, it actually gave me a nightmare! While sitting on my couch, I snoozed a bit during the commentary and had an awful dream that involved the apparent death of my son - made all the scarier by the fact that in the dream I was sitting on the couch watching Oculus when this tragedy was discovered. Since this sort of trickery is exactly how the mirror works, the film clearly had an effect on me (I almost never have nightmares, and when I do they tend to be over-the-top ones like being trapped in outer space), so take from that what you will!

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