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OCULUS Movie Review – The Overlook Hotel Casts a Long Shadow

Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel (The Shining) casts a long, suffocating shadow over Oculus, a haunted-mirror horror film directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and produced by Blumhouse Productions, Jason Blum’s (The Purge, Sinister, Paranormal Activity) genre-focused production company. Heavy on family (melo) drama and trauma (e.g., psychological deterioration, mental disintegration, violence and murder), yet only delivering modest chills and thrills (and scares), the last symptomatic of a screenplay that’s all buildup and minimal payoff, Oculus almost makes the grade for the discerning, discriminating horror fan. Non-discerning, non-discriminating horror fans, of course, will be more than happy to see a semi-original, non-sequel horror film (a rarity, admittedly), an R-rated one at that, and begin counting the days until the demon-haunted mirror at the center of Oculus reappears in the inevitable sequel – because successful horror films and series/franchises are practically synonymous.

Probably one of the most structurally ambitious horror films in recent memory, Oculus time jumps from the present, where a 23-year-old auction house employee, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), and her younger brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), newly released from long-term medical care, attempt to grapple and defeat the haunted mirror, and the past, as a teenage Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) witness the fast-motion implosion of the marriage of their parents, Alan (Rory Cochrane), a software engineer, and Marie (Katee Sackhoff), their stay-at-home mom. For murky, unclear reasons, Alan buys a full-sized mirror framed by ornate black wood at an antiques shop. Post-purchase, Alan hangs it on the wall in his private office, presumably so he can spend long hours gazing into its darkest depths (and presumably, vice versa). While Marie voices concerns about aging and the passage of time (a hint of her dissatisfaction with her role as mother and wife), Alan becomes obsessed, supposedly immersed in work, but in reality (or one version of reality), communing with the spectre or spectres that haunt the mirror.

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As an adult, Kaylie shares her father’s obsession with the mirror, but she wants to destroy it. Aware of his mind-manipulating, reality-distorting powers, Kaylie sets up multiple cameras and computers, Poltergeist-style, to record everything. Her attempts to convince Tim of the rightness of her actions meet with resistance, however, the result of years of therapy at the mental facility. Tim seems convinced there’s a rational, natural explanation for the mirror’s supposed impact. Their skeptic/believer dynamic will immediately remind moviegoers of the Scully/Mulder dynamic from The X-Files. Kubrick’s freeform adaptation of King’s novel, The Shining, however, provides Oculus with its central thematic and narrative influence or if you’re feeling less charitable, an all-you-can-borrow-or-steal buffet of horror-related tropes.

Whatever your take, it’s clear that the haunted mirror and the malevolent Overlook Hotel, with its ability to look into the minds and hearts of the central characters and exploit their mental and emotional fears and anxieties, originate in the same corner of the horror genre. The similarities can be distracting, even overpowering at times, a testament both to the deep-rooted impact of Kubrick’s masterful adaptation and Flanagan’s partially successful attempt to bring something new, superficially or otherwise, to the haunted artifact sub-genre. To Flanagan’s credit, focusing on the family in two time frames, one on the verge of being irrevocably sundered, the other still broken, but with the faintest possibility of healing, immediately elevates Oculus above the rote, routine horror films that periodically populate multiplexes, disappearing into obscurity after three or four weeks.

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Flanagan also deserves credit for the skillful cutting between time periods and characters, converging their distinct, separate realities in the third act without even the slightest hint of confusion. He also elicits uniformly strong performances from his cast, including the teen/preteen versions of the two central characters. That skill extends to building and maintaining tension and suspense, avoiding cheap jump scares (most of the time), and focusing on Cronenbergian body horror – both Marie and Alan undergo startling physical deteriorations and not for the better – for Oculus’ most memorable scares. Unfortunately, all those positives aren’t enough to overcome a formulaic, predictable third act and an ending that forces moviegoers to accept not one, but both characters acting stupidly. Flanagan almost (operative word being “almost”) makes up for it by avoiding the obligatory shot or scene meant to leave the door (or hell dimension) open for a sequel.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.