Horror, like so many other genres, often pays homage to what has come before. Sometimes, that leads to a playful back-and-forth (look no further than Wes Craven and the Evil Dead series). Sometimes, that back-and-forth isn’t possible, because the creator of what came before is no longer alive to create. However, paying homage is a tricky prospoect, as it is far too easy to put together a ham-fisted piece, trying to give credit and respect to those who blazed the trail, only to turn out a property that sucks the life and soul out of an attempt to dovetail.
One of those creators who seems to be incredibly difficult to handle when a new project taps into his particular style of storytelling is H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s style was so unique, and his stories tapped into the subconscious so frequently, that many attempts have been made, but it is the rare new creation that can actually carry some of the resonance. There’s a reason that the Cthulhu mythos is still carried forward, often through gaming properties; his world- building resonates still. And yet, far too often, filmed attempts to bring Lovecraft’s world to the screen have fallen flat. Movies seem to do a better job tackling a story in a Lovecraftian fashion, instead of directly reinterpreting his tales. This can lead to some surprises, such as with today’s movie.
To be honest, this is a movie that I originally gave a pass to. The story of a killer mirror, starring a very Scottish actress trying to mask her natural accent, and produced by WWE Films. It all felt like the set-up to another See No Evil, and I wasn’t looking forward to seeing which wrestler was going to be shoehorned into this movie. Then I discovered that WWE Films was only involved after the film was completed. I was still struggling with the killer mirror thing, fearing Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a schlocky, sub-B horror movie as much as the next guy. I just wasn’t sure that a killer mirror was going to bring enough enjoyment in an “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way.
I finally took in a viewing of Oculus recently, and I am frustrated that it took me so long to actually give it a shot. What seemed, based on trailers, to be a simple “killer mirror” story turned out to be something much more; a Lovecraftian tale in the style of his somewhat more down-to-earth variety. This isn’t another attempt at bringing the Cthulhu mythos to the public’s consciousness. No, instead Oculus focuses its story in the manner of Lovecraft’s science tales. The tales where the alien presence is studied by someone who seems to be the only one who truly understand the danger it presents, despite everyone else denying that truth. And the tales where that very act of research brings about the ultimate downfall.
Oculus tells us the story of Kaylie (Karen Gillan as an adult, Annalise Basso as a child) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites as an adult, Garrett Ryan as a child), who survived a terrifying experience as children, watching their parents slowly driven beyond the brink of insanity, leading to the death of both parents. Now, Kaylie has attained the antique mirror, the Lasser Glass, believing that it is responsible for not only what happened to their parents, but to many previous owners. The movie presents both timelines, and does so rather deftly, playing with the laws of reality as it sees fit to present its strongest story. And, while there are times where Gillan’s accent slips, and Thwaites is somewhat hit-or-miss in his performance, the movie is able to remain engaging.
Over the course of the movie’s running time, we witness the slow past disintegration of the parents, played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, while the present tale mirrors that collapse in a much more accelerated fashion. Kaylie has an entire research plan set out, and she wants to scientifically prove that the mirror is not only evil, but also sentient and looking to protect itself at all costs. She has cameras and other electronic devices set up throughout the house, many of them failsafes triggered only to come to life when something else inevitably fails. She has a strict schedule that she intends to follow, aided by numerous alarm clocks. She even sets up an anchor attached to a swinging arm, as a sort of dead man’s switch to try and ensure her own safety. After all, she figures that, if the mirror happens to cause her, or Tim’s death, they won’t be able to reset the timer, and it would lead to the mirror being shattered. It sets up an entire Chekov’s gun scenario, but that doesn’t take away from the matter in which the “gun” is utilized.
In some of the more grounded Lovecraftian tales, the act of research is what leads to the downfall of the protagonist. They insist that they haven’t lost their mind, and another observer (family, friend, hired help) is brought along, trying to be the voice of reason. However, one thing that Lovecraft carried forward in these tales is the dread of the alien item, and the power that it could actually contain. His stories didn’t necessarily set up a clear delineation between insanity and an outside evil; in fact, they often came hand-in-hand, and that’s another thing that Oculus succeeds at. The reality of the modern tale is brought into question, and, while Kaylie believes that she has methods and tricks to try and discern the truth, her mind is lying to her almost as much as the mirror is. Tim has to struggle not only with the current events, but with past memories long buried and denied. And that’s all before the timelines start to blur together, a natural extension of either the descent into madness experienced by Kaylie and Tim, or a supernatural display of the mirror’s powers. And, in true Lovecraftian fashion, Oculus makes it clear that, while the protagonists definitely lost their minds, the “other” presence was also very very real, and will continue to be a threat to others moving forward.
At the end of the day, Oculus is more than just a movie about a killer mirror, and the two people who ran afoul of its powers not once, but twice. It is also a tale about how our past experiences shape our present, and how, perhaps, some things should remain unknowable. Because of what they experienced as children, Kaylie obsessed over the mirror, striving to get it back (or was the mirror wanting to get back those that had once escaped). Tim seems to have moved on, but he gets dragged back in by his sister, only to relive so very closely the original events. The movie points to a need to understand our surroundings, while also cautioning against pushing too hard to get the answers you seek. The timelines mirror each other intentionally, to remind us about the ever-repeating nature of history, both personal and on larger scales.