Oculus (2013)

(Netflix Streaming, December 2016) At the risk of spoiling Oculus, I want to talk about the horror movie default narrative. Horror, as a genre, is not one where we can expect the happy ending. Horror does not offer such predictable comforts, but at the same time it has come to formalize the bad ending so thoroughly that it has lost its element of surprise. All things being now equal, the bad ending has little advantage over the happy ending. In fact, the bad ending (in which the threat wins, kills and endures) is far more annoying than the happy one in that it often negates the struggles described by the film—going against an all-powerful evil force, your default assumption is that you’re going to lose. If that’s what happens, then why tell the story? There are fewer ways to annoy an audience than to tell them that their sympathies are for naught, and I fear that this is what happens in Oculus, a feeling more than reinforced by the incredibly sympathetic Karen Gillian in the lead role. Oculus’s central premise is good (an evil mirror that clouds minds and demands sacrifice) but the film’s secret weapon is Gillian: from her first redheaded swinging-ponytail appearance, Gillian makes the most of an interesting character torn between sibling love and all-out thirst for vengeance for the mirror taking away her parents. The way she anticipates the mirror’s defence mechanisms and prepares countermeasures is good for a few good moments, but complications arise when her brother enters the picture. Much of the film is split between current-day efforts to investigate (or destroy) the mirror, with flashbacks showing what happened years before when the two siblings were kids. It’s cleanly shot and nicely edited, but there are a few lulls in the action and the ending is more repellent than I’d like. In retrospect, this marks an important step in writer/director Mike Flanagan’s progression, from the intriguing but fatally low-budget Absentia, to the slick roller-coaster ride of Hush. Oculus is flawed and frustrating, but it’s halfway decent, and I suspect that other people may react much better to the ending.

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