Oculus (MNM)

Rating:

MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL

Main Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites

Director: Mike Flanagan

Cinderella Castle Lights by Benjamin D. Esham

I worry that it’s too subdued. I hope people can still find us.

Normy and I are busy preparing Chateau Maine for the holiday season this week.  I thought it might be a good idea to be tastefully low key this year so we’re simply having the house bathed in LED spotlights with a thematic progression through the color spectrum synched to Steve Mauldin’s brilliant recording of O Holy Night.  There’s also a small blast of fireworks from the roof on the high note at the end of each verse.  For the interior decorations, red and green are so passé; I am instead having the art department at Sony pictures create some simply stunning designs inspired by the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi palace in a sort of Arabian Nights fantasy.  Of course, we are having our traditional live nativity on the front lawn the next few weekends.  The household staff do enjoy dressing up in my personally designed costumes that use only the finest sequins and crystal beading and I have engaged Dr. Paul and the Lena Lamont singers to play the heavenly host singing glory to God in the highest.  We will have to get better behaved sheep this year though.  I am tired of them wandering off and eating the shrubbery.  The neighbors can also be a bit of a pain about the traffic and other issues.  One year, Zsa Zsa had the effrontery to send me a bill for several thousand dollars’ worth of chrysanthemums which she claimed were trampled by the camels when the wise men were on a potty break and they went for an unexpected stroll.  I told Freddy Von Anhalt that if he didn’t take care of it, I’d let it slip about the time I found him naked and chained to the rear bumper of the Duesenberg in my garage, an incident he was never able to explain satisfactorily.  Such is the life amongst us superstars.

The completed holiday special has been sold to something called Sirius/XM where it’s going to be broadcast on the Latino Holiday channel.  I hope they do well by all the lovely visuals.  We did end up including one number saluting our friends south of the border,  a mash up of Feliz Navidad and A La Nanita Nana accompanied by mariachi but in a tango arrangement and with samba costumes.  I try to be as ecumenical as possible.  Madame Rose, my publicist, thinks that this kind of exposure to the Latin community will help me build new audience for future projects, or at least put me in the running for the new spokesperson for Taco Bell.

Supervising all of this holiday hustle and bustle was giving me a bit of a backache so I rummaged in the medicine cabinet until I found a muscle relaxer that wasn’t too far past its expiration date.  With that and a nice pineapple and Malibu rum martini, I was ready to relax and unwind with the Netflix.  In flipping through the selections, I happened across Oculus, a little independent horror film from earlier this year which I had heard good things about.  Horror is one of the more difficult genres of film to get right as fear depends more on imagination than what is literally shown and film, being a visual medium, tends to need to show and usually ends up showing too much and destroying our fear and dread in an orgy of gore.  I have been very disappointed in most modern horror offerings which have resorted to torture porn in order to deliver their shocks and I find it more revolting than scary.

Fortunately, writer/director Mike Flanagan, working from an earlier successful short film of his, understands the psychological nature of horror and how to let our mind fill in the gaps.  Oculus centers on a haunted mirror.  Why or how it came to be is not explained and does not need to be.  Suffice it to say, this gorgeous piece of antique furniture, enters the lives of the Russell family in a suburban McMansion somewhere in Anytown, USA.  As the film starts we see young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) being threatened by something wicked in their home.  We then flash forward to Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) as young adults.  Slowly we learn that Tim has been under psychiatric care for years following his murder of their father as a child and that his supernatural explanations for the family tragedies that led up to the murder have been treated as psychotic delusions and no longer haunt him.  He is released to the care of his sister who has remained convinced that what happened to them was the result of the mirror that hung in their father’s home office.  She arranges to buy it back at auction and hangs it in the house along with an elaborate system of detection devices to prove to the world that the mirror is evil and can cause physical manifestations such as temperature change and killing the house plants.  She has tracked down the provenance of the mirror over the last 250 years and carefully documented the horrific tragedies that occur everywhere the mirror has been.  Kaylie the obsessive and Tim the rationalist then begin to journey to the heart of darkness and director Flanagan cleverly intercuts the present with the events of a decade previously that led to the death of their parents.  Is the mirror truly haunted?  Are the children psychotic and damaged each in their own way from the traumas of years ago?  What is real and what is not?  Flanagan carefully reveals only enough for us to follow along while leaving much unexplained and plenty of physically and psychologically dark places for our own minds to fill in.  There may be no slimy tentacle creatures but it’s very H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury in its tone.

The cast are decent actors.  Ms. Gillan, perhaps best known for her role as Amy in Dr. Who has moved on to the lead in the new TV series Selfie while Mr. Thwaites went from this to playing Prince Philip in Maleficent.  Their doomed parents are Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica fame) and Rory Cochrane (long time character actor, especially in the films of Richard Linklater).  They handle their roles well and each show the psychological breakdowns their characters experience under the influence of the mirror.  I was particularly taken with Ms. Sackhoff who is required to get incredibly physical with her deterioration and manages to do it without going over the top.  As 90% of the film takes place in the house with just the family members, it’s relatively easy for Flanagan to conjure up an atmosphere of claustrophobic paranoia and dread.  The relatively low budget also prevent him from relying too much on special effects as some of the secrets of the mirror are revealed.  Where he does use them, especially around eyes, they introduce a proper frisson to the proceedings.   The electronic score by the Newton brothers also helps with the feelings of dread and things that go bump in the night.

By the end of the film, some has been explained, some has not, and the sequel possibilities are wide open.  As the film was quite profitable, I’d look for Oculus II at a theater near you around 2016.  Hopefully they won’t throw too big a budget at it and require Mr. Flanagan or whomever might take over for him, to continue to use his imagination.  It may not be the best horror film ever made (a couple of moments are too cliché for that) but it’s definitely worth a look.

Concerned psychiatrist.  Caged dog. Dead house plants.  Gratuitous cell phone stomping.  Crime scene photographs.  Boat anchor.  Light bulb eating.  Video game playing.  Gratuitous opening wound. Seductive ghost.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, read our Movie Rewind Introduction and check out her back catalog.  You can also follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

photo by Benjamin D. Esham

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