United States 2013
The debut novel of the great and troubled noir writer John Franklin Bardin was called The Deadly Percheron. At the beginning the hero discusses his mental health with his doctor.
‘I think I am losing my mind,’ says the hero.
From the first paragraph we realise that The Deadly Percheron is about mystery and paranoia. Something similar happens in Oculus. Tim the patient is young, handsome, sensitive, damaged and vulnerable. With his psychiatrist he discusses his future outside of the hospital and his less than reliable mental health. Ghosts and the supernatural defy credibility, and the number of encounters between spirits and neurotic vulnerable humans challenges mathematical probability.
The movie Oculus is not a household name but it was a success. It is popular in horror film festivals. The reviews from mainstream film critics were guarded but positive. The producers made a healthy 800% profit, and the film did no harm to the CVs of the director and actors. Kaylie, the sister of Tim, is played by ex Doctor Who assistant Karen Gillan. It is a different kind of role for the actress, and she does extend her range, but the American accent does not enhance her quirky charm.
Despite the success few think Oculus a classic. The film lacks cinematic style, and this limits its impact. There are ghosts but they are passive, and the film, because of its structure and restraint, does not qualify as modern gothic
Oculus was based on a short film called Oculus: Chapter Three – The Man With A Plan. The director and co-screenwriter Mike Flanagan had wanted the story to be made as a collection of shorts but he was unable to secure financing for the episodic format. His other film Absentia was made in his apartment and was intended as direct to video. It became a surprise hit on Netflix. Flanagan made a movie in his living room and uses titles about men with plans. He sounds like a nerd, and Oculus, might be described as a horror movie for nerds. This is another reason why it does not qualify as gothic.
The structure of the film, which is original and different, is its great strength but, for the past to dominate the film and to merge with the present, exposition is required. Presumably, Kaylie, the sister of the neurotic male, was once ‘the man with a plan’. She is the nerd. Kaylie is prepared to confront and destroy the monster within the mirror. The sister reveals her research and discoveries while setting up the technology that will capture and record the monster. She appears on the various screens around the room as she explains the connection of the mirror to previous murders and suicides. This mitigates the effect of the exposition but there is a lot to mitigate. Like the best male nerds, the sister believes that technology, data collection, planning and her own intellectual acumen will defeat the horror. The secrets of mystery threaten danger but to do this mystery has to exist which it cannot when superseded by knowledge. This is not mere tautology. This is the faith of the nerd.
Kaylie has a ponytail and red hair. The film begins with her ponytail swinging in an exaggerated fashion. The ponytail is important because it is the common characteristic between three women. These are Kaylie as a child, Kaylie as an adult and her mother. We will not escape our childhood or our parents.
Despite monsters and ghosts,the film is dominated by the limitations of the family and the mistakes of the past . Tim has been convinced by his psychiatrist that there is no hidden monster. The explanation offered by the psychiatrist is that Kaylie and Tim had lousy parents. Oculus unites the never-ending presence of the past to the impact of a less than perfect family. These themes and unity make Oculus worthwhile.
Philip Larkin was clear about the damage parents do to children, and his expletive helped his remarks become famous. The monster inside the mirror destroys the family but it also nourishes narcissism and exposes the damage parents cause children when they cease to be reliable and feel obliged to dwell on their own issues. Child psychologists eschew fashion and insist that children need discipline and certainty rather than moral debate. Oculus is gloomy and conservative and reinforces that warning. Its independent perspective is impressive.
All families that move house are cursed with naive optimism and overestimate themselves. The family that moves into the strange house is inevitably confused and disorganised. We soon see the family sharing dinner in their new home. They are perhaps too informal. Mother has an awful lot of wine in her glass, and father is preoccupied with work. The informal use of names between the family members implies that personalities will prevail over social identity and responsibility. We expect trouble for these trendies and are not disappointed. Kaylie and Tim, like all children, want their parents to be reliable and provide security, to offer something like a future. But mother and father collapse and change. Kaylie and Tim, instead of being dependent and protected, become protagonists and take action against their inadequate parents. Faced with the existence of evil the liberal household collapses. These parents snarl at their children, show their irritation and reveal that they are self-destructive, vindictive and egotistic, that they are human. Liberal faith consists of the belief that these limitations require tolerance and are compatible with a functioning society. The conservative argues that such limitations if not checked can facilitate evil. Adults who are parents have to pretend to be something other than flawed humans. Conservatives value flawed humans pretending. Liberals call it hypocrisy.
As an audience we are both liberal and conservative. We can understand why these human adults stop being parents but are also shocked by their transformation into monsters. We watch horror movies because we have a conservatism that is rooted in apprehension and pessimism but our liberal optimism allows us to hope that these fears can be massaged and defeated. Oculus is conservative rather than liberal, and that is only one of the reasons we do not anticipate a happy ending.
Critics of the film feel it lacks shock value and impact. The final slaying is contrived and modest but this is inevitable. The present is not as important as what happened in the past. The ending, though, is consistent with the preoccupations and character of the victim and it does encourage thought in the viewer. We are curious as to how these victims have contrived in their demise. There is also another murder that occurs in the present and before the end of the film. This event is too sudden and under-cooked, both the attack and the relationship between victim and assassin. Because the monster is hidden, the ghosts we do see are victims. They invoke sympathy and do not terrify. But the messages within the film are important, and Oculus stays inside the brain long after the typical gore movie or parade of vicious monsters.
The final merging of the past and present is impressive and it makes the film essential viewing for both horror and cinema fans. It is, though, why the film has to rely on an unusual structure. The inability of the horror in the present to compare with the past ensures a muted impact on thrill seekers. Indeed, we worry more about the horror that we will not see. The horror that will happen to Tim after our involvement with the movie has finished. In most horror movies the terror exists in the present, and the past becomes revealed in glimpses during the struggle. Excitement exists because terror either prevails or is defeated in the final denouement. Here the horror from the past defines the present and it will not go away.
Kaylie almost teases Tim with the word redeem. She understands that redemption is rooted in how we relate to the past. The brother who has left the psychiatric prison wants to move on, as his sensible pragmatic psychiatrist has insisted he should. Kaylie, now ‘the man with the plan’, believes redemption is only possible if she exposes and conquers the past with fresh evidence. She will redefine the past. These are the alternative options for redemption and the concepts compare neatly in the characters of Kaylie and Tim.
Kaylie looks assured and optimistic when she finds and purchases the mirror. The swinging ponytail suggests confidence and aggression, possibly violence. She is also the obvious descendant of her red haired mother. The desire to make her mother and herself perfect as the images of each other is why the mirror is important to Kaylie. But neither narcissists nor anyone should have confidence in a mirror. It reveals all but confuses because we can see only what is within our understanding and competence. Extreme faith in her ability to deal with the mirror, which is what Kaylie possesses, is dangerous. It affects not only what we might believe about ourselves but also determines how we affect the lives of others.
Oculus is not Henry James but he would have approved of a female hero that is deluded, obsessional and symbolic. Oscar Wilde would have agreed with the warnings about the mirror and flawed human nature. Not bad for a film that looks as if it might have been made for TV and could, at a push, be watched with the kids. Actually, letting the kids watch Oculus might not be such a good idea.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.