By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 26: OCULUS
2013's Oculus, like several films we've covered, is sometimes misunderstood as a movie about a mere "haunting," but as only the second feature length film by Mike Flanagan after the wildly original Absentia, you know there's a little more to it than meets the eye.
The story also interweaves two plotlines: one that took place in the year 2002, and one in the "present" time of 2013. The events from 2002 are interspersed throughout the entire movie, but rather than jump wildly back and forth for this review summary, I'm going to compile most of the 2002 story first, which is what other reviews and wiki entries opt for.
So in 2002, Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff) Russel move into a new home with their two children, 12 year old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10 year old Tim (Garret Ryan Ewald) It's a big, quiet house where Alan hopes he can easily concentrate on his job as a computer programmer, and he treats himself to a big, beautiful antique mirror to decorate the wall of his home office...but by the end of that first night, he already sees some fleeting visions of a strange woman with shining eyes.
While these hallucinations continue to escalate, Alan spends more time alone in his office and becomes increasingly hostile towards his own family. Marie grows paranoid that he's having an affair, especially once the children are able to see the "strange woman," and as her trust in her husband deteriorates, she hallucinates that her actual body is deteriorating with it, her flesh appearing to rot when she sees her own reflection.
The parents forget to eat or otherwise maintain their health or hygiene, and become gradually more hostile to one another as well as their children, especially after something seems to poison their dog. Blaming her own kids, Marie violently threatens them and comes close to harming them before her husband intervenes, and chains her long-term to a wall. He prevents the children from seeking help or leaving, insisting to them that everything is perfectly normal.
Eventually, Alan seems possessed by a directive to free Marie and assist her in killing their son and daughter. Alan ends up shooting Marie while she's attempting to strangle Kaylie, but then tries to strangle the little girl himself, until Tim gets ahold of his father's gun. Alan seems to snap out of his murderous trance, but takes his son's hand, gun and all, and forces the boy to shoot, framing a ten year old for the murder of both parents. No one believes either child's story, with Tim spending the next decade in counceling while Kaylie is raised to adulthood by a foster family.
Now for 2013. A 21-year-old Tim is deemed fit to reenter society, accepting through years of psychiatric care therapy that he killed his parents while suffering from a delusional disorder triggered by parental abuse, something that wasn't his fault, but also nothing supernatural.
When he runites with Kaylie however, he discovers that she's spent years working at an auction house for the sole purpose of intercepting the mirror. Whereas Tim has moved on, she has dedicated her life to proving that neither her brother nor her parents were to blame for the violent tragedy. She intends to not only expose the anomalous nature of the mirror to the world but contain, neutralize or destroy it once and for all. Over years of research, she has identified it as an artifact of unknown origin, the Lasser Glass, that has passed through more than 45 known owners...every one of them meeting a hideous, inexplicable end, several of which she shares as examples.
The original owner, Philip Lasser, hung the mirror over his fireplace in 1754, and was subsequently found sitting in front of the fireplace completely burned to death. In 1864, a railroad tycoon weighing 300 pounds was found emaciated and starved to death in his ballroom only weeks after acquiring the mirror. In 1904 a woman hung it in her bathroom, and was found dead from dehydration in a tub still full of water. A 1943 owner drowned her own children then bludgeoned herself with a hammer enough times to break most of her own bones before finally dying. A 1955 owner starved to death in his bedroom, a 1965 bank teller chewed through an electrical cable, a teacher in 1971 walked outside and into traffic immediately after seeing his own reflection, and a woman in 1975 died of blood loss from a miscarriage, during which she inexplicably pulled all of her own teeth out and put them neatly in a plastic bag.
Throughout these incidents, any pet dogs present tend to vanish without a trace, and all live plants in the same building are always found completely wilted.
It goes without saying that none of this information does anything to convince Tim that any of this is a good idea to mess around with, but Kaylie has a system, and this is the next most interesting thing about Oculus after its inanimate villain:
If you've ever been a fan of the SCP foundation, you might get a kick out of Kaylie's scientific methodology and clever failsafes. In the very same home where it all went down, she's set up a carefully controlled personal research lab where the mirror is subject to multiple layers and methods of 24/7 documentation, having thus far found that it is unable to manipulate electronic footage. It's being filmed from every angle, the temperature and pressure of the room is measured by several systems, she intends to document her observations continuously and she's built an especially clever "kill switch"...
...A huge, nasty, axe-like pendulum that Kaylie has set up to swing down and shatter the mirror if a timer isn't reset by hand every thirty minutes, her hope being that the mirror will be destroyed automatically if it kills, incapacitates or simply deludes them for too long.
Kaylie's Containment Procedures are insidiously clever, but her nemesis is nothing if not cleverly insidious. Things start small, with inexplicable temperature fluctuations, but soon the siblings are subjected to exponentially more vivid and more dangerous illusions. There seems to be no limit to how far the mirror can delude its victims as they repeatedly enter rooms they did not intend to enter, they're haunted by the ghoulish visages of the mirror's past victims, their video footage directly conflicts with their memories, and they terrifyingly catch themselves standing mindlessly in front of the mirror with just seconds left on the kill switch.
In possibly the second worst incident, Kaylie takes a snack break and obliviously bites into a fresh, juicy glass lightbulb. In the first worst, she mistakes her visiting fiancee for the glassy-eyed ghostly woman she saw eleven year prior and kills him, or so she thinks, or maybe she did? When the corpse appears to be gone, just another illusion, she is able to see it through the camera of her cellular phone. One would hope she's wrong that cameras always show the truth, but if Lasser can change digital film, they're even more screwed than they ever might have suspected.
When the two finally agree to terminate the experiment and leave at all costs, we see the true extent of the mirror's perceptual distortion; while standing outside, on the front lawn, they can see themselves through the windows of the house standing once more right in front of the mirror as the timer approaches that thirty minute mark, no certainty whether it's a trick to bring them back inside the house or a vision of what's really happening. They return to the monitoring room, still seeing themselves standing motionless before their foe, and they endure a final flashback to the aftermath of their parent's deaths.
The kids remember cowering at the foot of the mirror as they're surrounded by the decrepit images of former victims, all with tiny pieces of mirror in place of eyes. As they close in, they all open their mouths abnormally wide, and they collectively emit a jarring, screeching, alarm-like sound...
...Which is, in fact, Kaylie's alarm back in 2013. Tim is snapped out of the memory, but finds himself now seated all alone at the foot of the mirror, and gets no answer when he calls his sister's name.
Kaylie can't hear her brother, because she's still re-living the past. She perceives herself at thirteen years old again, about to smash the mirror with a crow bar, but sees Marie reaching out from the glass, smiling. She drops her weapon and embraces her mother, joining her inside the reflection, or so she thinks...
...Tim, in the present, still sees no one else in the room as he activates the kill switch, and you can guess where Kaylie has really been standing all along. The mirror is more than happy to lift the illusion and show Tim what he's done, leaving him alive out of seemingly nothing but spite.
Nothing unexplainable or paranormal ever would have really been captured on camera; only two siblings acting bizarre and erratic until one of them murders the other with her own absurd invention, proving nothing in the eyes of the law except that the two were terribly, terribly unwell and that releasing Tim was a mistake.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE LASSER GLASS
Oh my god, this nasty ass BITCH. This absolute MOTHERFUCKER. I despise that ending every bit as much as I love why I despise it. Sometimes it's the sign of a good movie if it can piss you off, and especially if it can make you angry at a piece of glass. Some reviews interpret this unapologetic douchegargler as "haunted" in the traditional sense, that it is the vessel for a collective of vengeful human souls, but I get a clear impression that it's the other way around; that the "souls" are "possessed" by the mirror, and that's precisely how the director has framed it. I mean literally framed it! You have to squint to see it, but the fine, pebbly texture of the mirror's inner frame is sculpted as hundreds of thousands of teeny, tiny, tangled human bodies, while the leafy outer frame deliberately suggests a vast, inhuman monstrosity coveting them all. Flanagan even requested that the frame have its own weird, alien face at the top!
Did you spot it? Did you see its little face?? It's so good, it's like some mournful, buggy eyed deep sea fish, or maybe a cross between a membranous amphibian and an insect. It even has a certain pitiful quality to it not unlike our own Magboils.
Flanagan says in an interview that he thinks everything we're "supposed" to find scary, including ghosts, are oversaturated and too easy. He apparently loves as much as I do when something unexpected and even absurd is our monster, recollecting that one of his most vivid childhood nightmares had his own clothing emerge from his closet to strangle him. NICE. This guy is seriously speaking my language! As he puts it, "Who is afraid of clothes? I was, and I bet you would be too if they came a-callin'." Yes. Exactly. That is exactly what I'm all about when it comes to horror.
I find that the careful plotting of the mirror's actions throughout Oculus, the creative improvisation and the deeply personalized cruelty pretty clearly suggest a single sentient force with its own distinct, consistent personality, and it's a deliciously despicable one...no matter how pettable its little facey wacey.
The hateful hunk of junk doesn't care who you are, why you brought it into your life or even how lovingly you might admire and cherish it as a priceless treasure; it hates, HATES, GOD DAMNED HATES humans, period. Evil humans, good humans, old humans, little baby humans, this big shiny dickhole just wants nothing more than to watch all of them squirm under its psychic torture until they die hideously, and it's impossible to judge whether it's feeling pure rage and bitterness all the while or it's having the time of its life when it gets to watch another innocent family massacre each other for its depraved entertainment.
Or, you know, it just doesn't "feel" anything at all by our standards, but a colder and more alien malevolence we can never begin to define, with Flanagan cryptically suggesting that the mirror is merely how we interpret the "eye" of something looking into our world. Something he's only described as an ambiguous sort of "anti-god."
You want so badly for Kaylie and Tim to win, or someone to come out on top against the antique wanker, especially because Kaylie comes so, so close, and I feel like even the digital tech she could have accessed by now might have given her the edge, right? If it really is the case that "video doesn't lie," she could pretty much just wear a VR headset through the entire experiment, right? And if she had streamed all of her footage live to social media, the events would be a global sensation in no time. The legend of this "cursed" object would become far too famous for the mirror to keep changing hands without anybody knowing about it. Its value would likely skyrocket to a point that only the fabulously wealthy can buy it anymore, and only those skeptical enough to brush off how the last guy eviscerated himself. By now, the entire world could be tracking Lasser's path of destruction through the world's most foolhardy billionaires, which is pretty much a win/win whether or not anyone ever manages to defeat it for good.
The thing is, this is not a movie that's supposed to have a good ending, or even an ambiguous "they got away for now" kind of ending, because the star of the whole movie really is the fact that this mundane household object is also an infuriatingly unbeatable mary sue of a nemesis, one that could make the edgiest Joker from the darkest Gotham say "holy shit, lighten up already;" a gargantuan flaming turd of a villain that smugly does what it wants and always gets away with it. When this kind of character is human, even "close enough" to human, they can easily be insufferable enough to sour the entertainment value of their own narrative, but like...an "item?" Just a stupid thingy you might find at a garage sale? That's our invincibly overpowered, shockingly deranged bad guy? It's too weird, too impenetrably "other" to be repulsed by in quite the same way as someone who squanders their more recognizably human life by spreading misery. Whatever reason this nasty, wretched thing exists and whatever reason it does what it does, it feels doubtful that its mind can run on any logic close enough to our own to be reasoned with.
It's AWFUL. It's possibly more awful than any single creature or character from any other movie in these reviews, barring an upcoming entry that could practically be its big brother, but Oculus is a rude mirror's movie, not any human's movie. As upsetting as the ending is for our protagonists, it's hard not to be entertained on at least some level by the senseless depths of petty contempt on display from Lasser Glass, like a sneering heel wrestler that thrives on a booing crowd. Kaylie and Tim, unfortunately, are just the latest in a long line of opponents this arrogant bastard wailed over the head with its cosmic folding chair, and the harder you hate it, the harder it probably gets off on it (in whatever sense that means for a piece of metal and wood.)
The gaping glasshole is at least stuck (as far as we know) as a lousy mirror bouncing between dusty thrift stores, but even if it could choose to be anything else, it might only choose to be a giant middle finger.
One of the most interesting things about this movie, however, is that its official title isn't actually "Oculus" at all, but Oculus 3. The intention was, apparently, to begin an anthology horror series that would release "out of order," with a whopping total of nine different stories that may not all focus directly on the mirror, but all tie together in some way, at some point. Might it still happen? I'd at least enjoy seeing either prequel or sequel, but sequel would perhaps be a little more fun...then we really could see how Lassie fares against a decade or so of technological innovation. Nobody, as of Kaylie's experiments, ever did try to expose Lassie on social media, as far as we're aware.
It wouldn't turn out to...nahh, come on....still work through the internet, would it? Do you think?