Some strange patterns have emerged lately in the theatrical release dates department. Logically, the best time to release a horror movie in theaters would be September or October …. right? Why not capitalize on society’s seasonal fascination with spooky? Somehow, movie studios have collectively agreed that the entire month of October now belongs to whichever annual horror franchise is the current top dog, and there’s no room for anything else (currently the top dog is Paranormal Activity). As a result the studios seem to be left without a clear time frame in which to dump all their unproven new horror films into theaters. “Unproven” in this case meaning “not a franchise or a remake”.
Spring seems to be what they’ve landed on. It doesn’t make much sense but there it is. If anything, it’s an indication of just how little faith mainstream movie studios have in the horror genre, that they want to dump everything into the post-awards season, pre-Summer blockbuster purgatory. There’s a lot of crap of course, because when has that ever NOT been the case with horror? But there are also those rare gems, and we seem to be getting one of them each year.
Last year it was You’re Next. The year before, Cabin in the Woods. And this year’s unseasonal horror surprise – Oculus.
Right off the bat, let me say this: If you’re the type of person that bases their moviegoing decisions solely on trailers, stop doing that right now. Seriously, stop it. You have the internet, there’s no excuse at all to let some marketing guy be the sole influence on your movie watching habits. The trailers and TV spots for Oculus are terrible. Whoever is responsible for them clearly had no idea what makes this movie special, or how to highlight that in short form. Read some reviews. And if you use Rotten Tomatoes, go ahead and add about 15% to the score to adjust for the genre factor when you’re talking horror.
Oculus is a story about a haunted mirror, and about two siblings’ attempt to document the haunting, then destroy it for good. That’s all the plot you need to know going in. What’s refreshing about the conceit of the movie is, the mirror is simply haunted. No further explanation given. It’s very en vogue in ghost stories right now to swap out spirits with demons, but that’s not the case here – or it could be, but we just don’t know. This movie doesn’t have any professional demonologists hanging around, because I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “professional” demonologist.
Oculus does kind of start off on some shaky footing. A few of the now ubiquitous modern horror clichés pepper the first 20 minutes of the film – most notably, “Pulling the sheet”. But it finds its groove as soon as the introductions are out of the way and we get to the main event, which is a meticulously (and refreshingly logical) crafted system of documenting the process of “baiting” out whatever entity is possessing this mirror (called the Lasser Glass), controlling for its perception-warping powers, and deploying a fail-safe method of destruction. When the sister, Kaylie, starts to explain the process, showing us all the checks and controls she has in place to counter the known powers of the mirror, I was immediately on board. It not only avoids the “no shit” logical traps that almost every ghost hunting movie falls into, but cleverly comes up with plausible scenarios you wouldn’t even think of.
Without giving away the best parts, here’s an example: They know that one of the effects of the mirror is that house plants inexplicably die in its presence. So Kaylie places numerous healthy plants throughout the house to determine how far the mirror’s sphere of influence stretches. Walk to the closest living plant and you’re safe from whatever the mirror wants to throw at you. Very smart.
But we soon learn that the entity dwelling in the Lasser Glass is even more clever than our extra-prepared heroes. The mirror exerts its influence by altering people’s perception of reality in extreme ways, manipulating them into violent acts against themselves and others. Food becomes broken glass, people take the form of others, even the words and actions of the main characters are hidden from them. This is how the movie keeps you from ever being able to find your footing. The characters never know what’s real, and neither do you, and with so much mental energy devoted to trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re much more vulnerable to the scares.
What unfolds is a battle of wits, between logic and the scientific process on one side, and a being that can’t move or take physical form, but can make a person see, hear, or feel anything on the other. If you picture the face-peeling hallucination scene in Poltergeist, you’re not far off, though the level of gore in Oculus is a bit more restrained than that.
If Hollywood has you starved for an original horror property with a high level of suspense, some old-fashioned haunted house scares, and more wit than you expect, check out Oculus. So far, it’s the sleeper hit of 2014.