ImageOk, Oculus, so you want to be a good horror movie? Let’s see. Haunted object? Check. Unexplainable moving objects? Check. Spooky, long haired ghost girl that appears in the background and disappears when someone turns around? Check. Well, everything seems to be in order…oh wait, just one more thing – not a simple retread of The Shining or The Amityville Horror with younger leads and no originality…oooh, I’m so sorry, you’re missing the final qualification for your certification. The best I can do for you is offer you a license to franchise with the high risk of no one caring.

Oculus is a pretty cool name for a movie, I’ll admit. But when you realize the word has an architectural origin to refer a round opening at the top of a domed ceiling, and then you see the movie Oculus, you realize that’s all it is – a cool title. There is very little depth to Oculus. Told in a fractured and parallel timeline, Kaylie (Karen Gilian) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) are siblings who in 2002 watched their parents slowly driven insane by a strange and haunted mirror that led their father (Rory Cochrane) to kill their mother (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) forcing Tim to kill his own father in a sort of self defense. Young Tim is sent to a mental facility for treatment until his 21st birthday while Kaylie grows up determined exonerate her brother by capturing and killing the spirit that attacked her family. Flash to 2012 (not 2013 or 2014, to give you an idea of how long this film sat in cinematic purgatory), Tim is released from the psychiatric hospital with the recommendation of his doctor solely on the evidence that when he dreams of his terrible past, at least it is he who pulls the trigger in his dreams. What?!?!

Tim is released to his sister’s care. Their family’s belongings liquidated in an estate sale, Kaylie has managed to secure the deadly mirror from an auction house, and she still retains the title to their childhood home. With the mirror back in her late father’s office, Kaylie reveals to Tim that through an elaborate setup involving multiple cameras, timers, alarms, and other “precautions” she believes she will be able to capture the mirror’s deadly abilities and powers on camera and be able to then use this evidence to prove Tim did not kill his father but that a spirit afflicted their family and left him no choice.

Oculus is not a deep movie, nor is it a confusing movie, but director Mike Flanagan goes out of his way to make you think it is both. Jumping frantically from one timeline to another, he accomplishes the task of disorienting the viewer, but not in a good way. The final act plays out in a distorted Kafkaesque fashion with no real satisfaction at the end. When the lights came up in the theater, I heard an audible huff of disappointment from the other patrons.

In the end, Oculus seems to be a victim of its own self-importance. This has all been done before and done much better. The scares are few and far between, and while I commend the film’s choice to follow in The Conjuring’s footsteps and emphasize terror and fear over gore, it mostly doesn’t work in this case…that is unless you have a fear of mirrors and shattered glass. In which case, prepare for scares-a-plenty! C

Oculus is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.

The Conjuring

ImageOne of the best things you can say about a horror movie is simply this: it’s scary.  In January, I wrote a short discussion on the horror genre masked as a review of Mama.  I have chosen to foolishly assume that my small blog post has single handedly reminded filmmakers and studios of the potential effect creative horror films can have.  The Conjuring is scary.

Strangely enough, the man who revitalized the exploitative “torture-porn” style of horror with his 2004 film Saw is now looking to do the very same thing to the classic horror style that films like Saw all but demolished.  James Wan helms the efficaciously eerie film, The Conjuring which tells the true story of two paranormal investigators who agree to help a family whose house may be infested with a demonic presence in 1970s New England.

From the Exorcist inspired main titles, The Conjuring is off and running.  We are introduced to paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they hear out potential clients explaining a feared demonic infestation by way of inhabitation of a very disturbing looking doll.  We discover that Ed is a demonologist who while not ordained is still accepted among the Catholic church and his wife Lorainne is a clairvoyant, both with many successful cases behind them.  After this introduction, we are informed that the true story that follows details the most horrifying case that the Warrens have ever encountered.  The film’s structure then fragments into a dual narrative where we simultaneously follow the Warrens as well as the frightening events that lead a family to seek them out.

This dual narrative is an excellent choice for Wan to keep the scares coming as well as inform the audience to what is happening while not losing track of either the Warrens or the Perron family’s decent from infestation to oppression and ultimately to possession.  The story of a family bothered by something extra-terrestrial is not as fresh of an idea as it once was, but Wan’s simple techniques like a quick focus  or a back and forth camera pan offer terrifying results.  Additionally, the Parron family is quite large composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.  This allows the danger to feel more real and their options to seem more limited while the terror is more expansive.  Furthermore, the appearance of a bouncing ball, a creaking door, or a quick clap provides some of the best scares in recent horror history without feeling cheap or cut-rate.  Not since the first Paranormal Activity have ghostly scares been so effective, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the scares in The Conjuring do not necessarily come with the forewarning of a timestamp on a video camera.

Reviewing a good horror film is an art in itself as quite a bit must remain unsaid, but enough must be said to entice the reader to see it.  James Wan has created a horror film that appeals to a nostalgic retro vibe that calls back to the monumentally creepy films of the 70s like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now.  I first saw The Exorcist at age 17 on home video on a sunny afternoon and it still scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I can say that The Conjuring provided me with the closest experience to that in a long time.  I’m sure it will be quite a while before I decide to watch The Conjuring alone at night.  A-       

The Conjuring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.    

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