“Mom Was Always Home”: Oculus

“Mom Was Always Home”: Oculus April 14, 2018

Oculus is a time-bending, hallucination-filled tale of an old and evil mirror that destroys a family by making the dad do bad things. This sounds predictable, yes? “The Shining, but cheesy,” you’re thinking. But that’s a much apter comparison than it might seem. Oculus has Stephen King’s ability to capture the real emotional dynamics in violent families. What starts out as a fairly ordinary paranormal-or-madness? tale turns into a jagged meditation on what it’s like to survive child abuse.

Oculus begins when Tim (Brenton Thwaites as an adult, Garrett Ryan as a child) is released from the mental hospital where he’s been held involuntarily since the night he, possibly, killed his father. He reconnects with his sister Kaylie (adult Karen Gillan and child Annalise Basso) and learns that she is still convinced that what happened to them was not ordinary family violence, but supernatural evil. Like the children of Derry she still remembers the promise she and her brother made on that night long ago, and she is determined to destroy the evil mirror. But first, she has to prove its power–and so she has to wake it up….

It’s a smart setup, it follows its own rules, and horror fans will especially appreciate the moment when you realize this could’ve been a contrived found-footage film and absolutely will not be that. The technology is used sometimes for irony, sometimes to show you how determined and sharp-witted Kaylie is, and sometimes to show you how totally helpless a child can be. (“You need to get your father to call” is one of the film’s most frightening lines; it’s one of the lines most rooted in realism.) The mirror is a terrific presence. You feel its mobile malevolence.

The acting is uneven. Neither of the adult siblings’ actors is as good as the raw, believable child actors they replaced. Gillan starts out especially wooden, but loosens up and becomes compelling about a half-hour in. Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck!) is excellent as their disintegrating mom, Rory Cochrane solid in the very difficult role of a man who has to be equally believable as a loving father and as an abusive tyrant. The actual “oculus” effect and its accompanying scary makeup is indeed quite cheesy, and I basically was scared whenever that stuff wasn’t happening but couldn’t be scared while it was. But I’ll say that writer/director Mike Flanagan handles two simultaneous and interweaving timelines perfectly–you’ll never be confused as to what’s happening unless you should be.

This seems like a movie that should have a sequel, or a prequel or a something. (What it got instead was a Bollywood remake! No lie.) It’s not that I want explanations. And in a certain way the movie works best as a closed circle: By the end you’ll see why the evil object is, specifically, that oval ourobouros mirror. But the action here is so tightly-constrained in time and place that it made me want to know whether the mirror radically changes people, overriding them completely, or whether like the Overlook Hotel it draws out what was always, unacknowledged, hiding within the family.

The specific line that made me wonder about this is when the adult siblings are trying to check their memories of a particular incident, and Kaylie asks, “Was mom at home?” Tim replies, with an edge of anger and disgust, “Mom was always home.”

And that’s true. Their mom never leaves the house! That’s not normal. Was that normal for them? Was there already that hermetic shell over the secrets of an unhappy or abusive home? We don’t see enough to really guess. But it’s yet another of the movie’s insights that it doesn’t hammer on this, doesn’t lecture us about the mom stuck in her housetrap, it just gives us this one line and lets us feel how distorted and sad it is.

I think I heard about this movie when it came out, but like a fool I took a pass until the Deadly Doll praised it. She and a cohost discuss its resonance for abuse survivors here, starting roughly at the 1 hr 8 mins mark and going until about 1:15. That link includes what I would consider spoilers, but it’s worth checking out once you’ve seen the film.

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