Oculus: A Tale of Two (Or More) Movies


Being in the mood for a Halloween-appropriate movie, we watched Oculus last  weekend. Warning: mildly spoilersish stuff ahead. I was hoping for was a tragically bad movie that would be good for a hate watch and yelling at the screen. What I got was a frustrating movie that had the seeds of a lot of really good ideas in it, but utterly failed on execution. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with ambiguity, or narratives that hint at possibilities, but leave things open-ended. In fact, when well-executed, I love that kind of story.

Alas, in the case of Oculus, what could have been a Turn of the Screw-style story, with its multiple threads hinting at many possible narrative realities came off as a simple inability to make a decision. I’d compare it to a puppy, trying to bound off after every exciting thing all at once. Does it want to be a supernatural thriller, or a chilling examination of domestic violence? Is it a psychological horror movie examining the coping mechanisms people develop to deal with pain, or is there a freaky evil mirror hell-bent on destroying people? Is it a story about the past, or the present? Is it a movie that relies on cheap jump-scares, or legitimately creepy and disturbing imagery? Even the poster makes very little sense. A moment that is tense in the film, isolated as a still image, loses all impact. Maybe the kids are cowering in terror, or maybe they’re just having a bad reaction to pollen.

Oddly enough, for a story about illusion and perception, Oculus suffers from being told through a visual medium. For the most part, the acting and direction are poorly done, so scenes that should be intensely creepy or emotional generally fall flat. The movie borrows heavily from other, far better films, like The Shinning, and suffers from it. All Work and No Play Make the Guy We Don’t Care About and Whose Name I Can’t Even Remember Go on a Murderous Rampage Against His Family Because Some Ghosts Told Him To, I Guess.

The best parts of the movie are thrown away. The way it plays with time. The way it questions whether you can you trust your eyes and your memory. The notion that a malevolent, supernatural entity – implacable and unstoppable – could be more comforting and the truth. As a result of all the juggling the movie does, the most intriguing threads get lost – the dog, the fiance, the dead plants, the fixation on teeth, and broken glass, and fingernails. The imagery of broken glass/broken ceramic in particular could have served as a callback to disturbing childhood memories throughout the movie, but there is only an attempt to give it emotional weight as an after-thought. The opportunity to explore the origins of an entity that feeds off pain and insists on the suffering be self-inflicted is wasted. Similarly, the idea that the entity allows people to experience hints of that pain, then immediately erases it from their memory goes nowhere nowhere. The truly unsettling ways in which the entity forces people to die,for instance a woman putting her children to sleep inside a well, then shattering her own bones with a hammer, could could have stood more exploration. But the whole history of the deaths the mirror caused is glossed over in less than two minutes.

Oculus might have been a slow, creeping, suffocating suspense movie. Instead, some people it’s hard to care about do irrational things for 100 or so minutes, and then the movie ends. Except it does all this while giving you tantalizing glimpses of what the movie could have been. Frustrating.

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