Thoughts on “Oculus”

When I started watching this movie, it somehow seemed familiar.  I had heard of this story before, but couldn’t recall ever watching it.  Then, it hit me:  a while back I had been going through the list of horror movies on TV Tropes to pick out ones that sounded interesting, and had read about this one.  So it seemed familiar because I had indeed read about a number of the plot points before.  Fortunately, I didn’t remember that well enough to spoil the plot, or to spoil the twist in the ending.  Of course, in talking about it I’m going to go ahead and spoil all of that, so if you think you might want to watch this movie you should probably stop reading now (although by now if you’ve been reading these posts you really should already know that).

Anyway, the basic story is that a young man is being let out of an insane asylum because he killed his father when he was just a child and according to the doctor made up some kind of story about it that no one believed.  The movie hints at a potential problem with his sister over this and we are led to believe that she was upset with him for killing their father, but it turns out that the warning from the doctor that she didn’t have the help he had to deal with it was not about her having hard feelings towards him for the killings, but instead that she has stuck to and still believes the purportedly crazy story that they told at the time of the murder.  And the story is this:  the family had bought an antique mirror that had a history of people around it dying in strange and often violent and crazy ways, and they claim that it drove the father to torture and kill the mother and then try to kill them, so the son killed the father in self-defense.  The sister wants to document the supernatural things the mirror does to prove that the mirror was responsible and not her father and brother, and then destroy it — using an automated and timed mechanism — so that it can’t do these things again.

So, why is the mechanism automated?  Because the mirror has the ability to cloud the perceptions of people and make them think that they are seeing and hearing things that they aren’t, which is how it manipulates people into doing terrible things and how it protects itself.  It seems like if you watch it in a camera you see things as they really are — this is formally revealed later in the movie — and so the cameras would capture things as they really are.  It also seems to feed off of the life force of various things — planets, animals, and ultimately people — to get its power, and so to get it to act as appropriate so she can document it she has to kick start it with some plants and a dog that gets set free.  So, essentially, instead of simply destroying it she has to actually reactivate it and give it power before she can destroy it, which really seems like a recipe for disaster.  And it ultimately is.

The structure of the movie is that it splits its time between the events of their childhood and the events of the present, showing us what happened back then and what is happened now.  This is actually not a bad set-up, but it suffers from the issue that the past events run pretty much right up to the end of the movie but don’t really have much of a purpose at that point.  What I mean is that in most cases the point of showing the past would be to set up a mystery for the present — are things how they believe them to be or are they delusional, for example — and then by viewing the past events we can see that mystery played out and solved.  As noted, here the main mystery would be whether the mirror really was supernatural or whether they were delusional, and that mystery is played with in the early parts of the movie, with the brother trying to stick to the story he adopted from his therapy and the sister sticking to the original story but seeming rather irrational and so not trustworthy.  This would work well, then, except that we don’t find out that the mirror is really supernatural in the past until the events at the end, pretty much, and by that point the present portion of the movie has already made it clear that, yeah, the mirror really is supernatural.  And while the events in the past do fill in the gaps in the history that the main characters tell us, there’s no real twist there or real revelation that justifies interrupting the life and death struggle of the main characters in the present part.  So it seems to go just a wee bit wrong.

Now, the thing here is that there is indeed quite a few things that we could consider wrong about this movie.  The backstory and history and powers and goals of the mirror are never explained.  At the ending, the brother is being manipulated by the mirror and breaks free to trigger the destruction mechanism … only to have it stopped by the sister’s body that the mirror manipulated into being there (and so he kills her), which raises questions like why he didn’t check the cameras first and why she didn’t rig a mechanism that would destroy it even if it did something like that.  And there are a number of other minor issues.  But for the most part, none of them matter.  The plan isn’t all that great and all that well-thought out, the brother is panicking and so wouldn’t think to check the cameras, and so on and so forth, but the movie does seem to know what it wants to do and focuses on that, leaving the other issues unexplained or handwaved to get at the key things you need to know.

Given that, what I have to say about the movie is this:  I’ve been griping for a while now about the lack of horror movies that know what they want to do and set out to do it, and manage to do that with even basic competence.  For all of its flaws, “Oculus” strikes me as a movie that knows what it wanted to do and set out to do it, and managed to mostly pull it off.  Yes, it would be nice to know more about the mirror and its history and its goals and it would probably even make the movie better, but ultimately we don’t need to know any of that and it doesn’t really get in the way of anything that we don’t.  It could probably be improved, but it does work on its own.

In that way, it reminds me of “Happy Death Day”.  And as such, it gets the honour of going into my closet of movies to rewatch again at some point.  Proving that, really, all these movies need to do is decide what they want to do and do it with basic competence, meaning that it’s kinda sad that so many of them can’t manage it.


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