Oculus Reinvents Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Oculus was released last weekend, starring Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell and Brenton Thwaites as her younger brother Tim, who was recently released from a mental institution following the deaths of their parents ten years ago.

Both are in their early 20s now and, upon Tim’s release, Kaylie offers him a quick, welcoming hug before reminding him of the promise they made to each other just before he was stuffed into a police car and carted away for the murder of their father. Kaylie believes (and Tim did too, before the institution showed him “the error of his thinking”), a mirror the Gillan parents purchased for their new home ten years ago is possessed by a spirit whose occasional incarnation as a freaky girl is only slightly more disturbing than the mirror’s ability to create illusions in the eyes and minds of whoever happen to be in its immediate vicinity.

Oculus - Reinventing Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Oculus – Reinventing Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Promise me, Tim…

Kaylie made Tim promise they would destroy the mirror once Tim was released back into society, since Kaylie holds it responsible for the death of their parents.

The spirit possessing the mirror drove Kaylie and Tim’s mother Marie crazy, and then possessed and made their father Alan kill Marie. Only Tim’s ability to get his hands on Alan’s gun and shoot him dead in turn prevented Alan from killing him and his sister.

Oculus means “eye” and, in the film, it likely alludes to the mirror as an eye into the universe of dark spirits or to the human eye tricked by that mirror into believing fantasies.

The story also provides a refreshing perspective on family dynamics within the horror genre.

The Treatment of Family in Horror Cinema

The treatment of family in horror cinema typically goes either one of two ways. You have the Poltergeist approach, which suggests that families have to rely on their bond of love to survive the horrors that afflict them. More recently, in last year’s The Conjuring, it was a well-meaning family that had to stick together to survive the evils of a possessed home. Going back a year earlier to Insidious, father Josh Lambert had to enter the spirit world to retrieve his son Dalton who had been stolen away by malevolent, bad-ass demon.

The other approach to family dynamics is the one set up before Alan and Marie’s death in Oculus, and which has parallels in such films as Sinister and The Shining.

In this approach, the horror that besets the family is largely an extension of and, to some extent, a metaphorical result of internal strife within the family: a stressful move to a new town, or a workaholic or frustrated parent trying to win back something lost to the past, or some other attempted recovery from disappointment or tragedy. Obviously, kids must be part of this equation since they will be the ones who suffer the most.

In Oculus, Alan is trying to launch a new business from the small office in the Russells’ new home (the same office where the supernatural mirror is hung) and has a bit of a short fuse. When we first meet him, he’s juggling phone calls, trying to help Marie with the movers and telling the kids not to play in his office.

Think about the similarities with The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, a frustrated playwright who has a wife and son to support and not much in the way of steady employment, or Ellison Oswalt of Sinister who has unsuccessfully been struggling to recapture the fame that came from the publication of his first book and proceeds to ignore his family in the process.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that all the men who serve as vehicles for the horrors that beset them and their loved ones aren’t quite with the program in the family department.

In most cases, the horror successfully overtakes and destroys the family (Sinister) or the family narrowly escapes and must live with the memory of how a terrible experience destroyed someone they loved (The Shining).

So Kaylie and Tim are the kids who narrowly escaped the destructive force that killed their parents, which would classify them under the Shining model. However, THAT is only where the movie begins. After Tim’s release from incarceration, Oculus heads in a new direction.

Kaylie Won’t Forget….

Kaylie has held fast during this time to the decade-long promise she committed her brother to, that the horror can’t be abandoned or left behind. She wants revenge and is ready to jump back into the fray and destroy the mirror that killed their parents.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising.

Despite Kaylie’s freedom during the past decade, it is Tim who has landed in a better position. His doctor tells Tim as much just before he is released to society. Tim has had the benefit of mental health support following the deaths of their parents, the doctor points out, while Kaylie has not.

And viewers won’t exactly be enamored with Kaylie’s intense desire to drag Tim back and confront the demons of their past right after he’s won his freedom.

Kaylie represents a staple in much of horror cinema, a sweet young thing in a t-shirt and snug jeans up going against the baddies. But there is a slightly deranged quality to the way she sets up the mirror in the old family home and prepares to destroy it with a winch and metal hammer contraption attached to the ceiling. She has also set up multiple defenses against any attempt by the mirror to counteract her plan to destroy it.

When Tim sees what she’s up to, he is aghast and explains everything he learned in the hospital, that there was nothing supernatural about the mirror, that their father went crazy and killed their mother and that he (Tim) killed Alan to protect Kaylie and himself. The problem, says Tim, is that he and Kaylie both went through an awful experience and have not learned to accept what happened.

In real life, this is often true. One’s inability to accept and manage the emotions that accompany the tragedies in life often lead to internal disturbances. This is where the real horror can begin–a failure to just get a grip–and that is what Tim believes is bothering his sister.

Kaylie stubbornly will not accept that explanation but ultimately, after the viewers begin to suspect that yes, she may indeed be a tad bit off kilter, she ends up being right. The mirror is possessed.

It’s not my intent to delve into the rest of the film. It’s enough to simply highlight the back story and show how two survivors of a supernatural creature choose to face the presence that killed their parents rather than move on in their lives.

In the end, what this represents is a kind of re-prioritization of values within the horror genre. Most survivors of a supernatural attack feel lucky just to escape. If even one teenager can escape the blade of Jason Vorhees or Leatherface, count your blessings.

But for Kaylie, survival isn’t enough. I doubt she even notices. She just gets angry. Family, it seems, is everything worth fighting for and worth getting revenge for.

We’ve seen this before, in a way. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is a kind of mirror image of Oculus (no pun intended). Rather than children seeking revenge on those that killed the parents, in Craven’s film, it is the parents who go after the men who killed their children.

The difference in Oculus is that the mirror represents more than limited, mortal evil; it is supernatural evil with powers the siblings can’t quite understand or know how to fight. This same supernatural evil, mind you, killed their parents.

Kaylie and Tim can only HOPE to endure. And I won’t tell you if they do, but the movie reflects on more than simple escape from the horror.

Oculus is an examination of how those who have lost loved ones will go back and fight regardless of the consequences or their chances of survival.

That’s unusual in the horror genre. Again, survivors typically consider themselves lucky to escape despite the fate of other victims.

But perhaps Oculus isn’t really a horror story. Perhaps, after all, it is actually a love story.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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