Face-Off: Absentia vs. Oculus

By the end of the year, we'll have seen a lot more from director Mike Flanagan. This Friday, April 8th, his third horror film HUSH will be available for viewing around the world on Netflix. His film BEFORE I WAKE will also start making its way onto screens in some territories later this month, and he has directed OUIJA 2 for release this October. The amount of Flanagan horror movies we'll be able to watch will have more than doubled soon, but as of right now he has two genre features that have been released - 2011's ABSENTIA and 2013's OCULUS. Two movies... that's just enough for a Face-Off!
As Tricia goes through the process of having her husband, who has been missing for seven years, declared dead in absentia, she starts having disturbing visions of him. Soon after she receives the death certificate, her husband appears outside their apartment, alive and terrified. He says that he has been the captive of a creature that lives in a dimension accessible through the tunnel near their home, and Tricia's sister Callie has reason to believe it's true. It's an unnerving, intriguing mystery that is told quite well, despite the limitations of a low budget.
OCULUS is like the GODFATHER PART II of supernatural horror films, telling two stories - past and present - that are intercut with each other. The story in the past depicts the gradual destruction of a family after a haunted antique mirror is brought into their home, while the story in the present finds the family's two children, now adults, setting out on a mission to destroy the mirror and clear their family name. As the film goes along these two storylines start to merge more and more, at times to a disorienting degree. Two stories allows for a lot of horrific events.
Courtney Bell plays Tricia, who is struggling to move on from the loss of her husband. A lot gets thrown this character's way over the course of the film, and Bell does some great work as she deals with it all. Katie Parker is Tricia's troubled sister Callie, who is there to support her sister through this difficult time but quickly realizes there's something very strange going on in that nearby tunnel. Parker's performance is a little shaky, sometimes she's really good and other times she's not so convincing.
The stronger presence of Russell siblings Kaylie and Tim is, in both past and present, Kaylie, who is played by Annalise Basso and Karen Gillan. Although completely terrified, Kaylie steps up to do whatever she feels has to be done to destroy the evil mirror for the sake of her family. Played by Garrett Ryan and Brenton Thwaites, Tim is a weaker character, especially in the present, but when you've endured eleven years of torment because of a mirror it's tough to get drawn back into another experience with it.
Some may find it ridiculous, but I felt that Flanagan did a fine job unspooling the mystery of the tunnel, presenting a cryptid insect creature that is essentially the troll from the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale. It lives beneath a tunnel/bridge and enslaves the people unlucky enough to encounter it, but it also likes to trade them for items offered up by their loved ones. The conditions of the deals are never clear, though. You can't trust a supernatural bug.
Exactly why this mirror is so evil isn't clear, the characters just know that is has been messing people up in horrible ways since the 1700s. Owners have burned to death, drowned their children, beaten themselves with a hammer, etc. The Russells are forced to go through an awful domestic abuse situation; a mother driven mad and chained to a wall, a father threatening his family with a gun. Whatever the force within the mirror is, it's incredibly nasty and you want to see it stopped.
ABSENTIA has a dark and creepy tone, but it's also a film that has to perform a balancing act, as the antagonist is a creature that you can't really show, both for budgetary reasons and because there's a risk that the monster bug could look silly if it was seen for too long. Flanagan wisely chooses to keep things as mysterious as possible. It's much more effective to hear characters talking about the monster and to watch them try to trade with the unseen beast.
OCULUS is a rather relentless onslaught of tension and imagery and situations designed to make your skin crawl. Because of the present day scenes we know the mirror is bad from the start, so the past scenes don't have to hold back or do too much build-up, Flanagan can just let loose the terror. What goes on with the Russell family is disturbing to watch, as there's an uncomfortably real aspect to it beneath all the supernatural shenanigans. It's a movie that left me feeling dirty.
Neither of Flanagan's first two horror features have a happy ending, but the open-ended bummer conclusion of ABSENTIA does leave me with some hope. The secrets of the creature are being revealed, the story could continue, and maybe a way could be found to defeat the otherworldy insect and rescue its captives. That just hasn't happened by the time the end credits start rolling. At that point, it appears that characters are going to be screwed for a while.
OCULUS has a gut-punch of a downer ending. You know those endings that are so unsatisfying and depressing that it almost makes you regret having spent the time watching the movie in the first place? For me, OCULUS has one of those. The ending is so tough on the characters that it made me feel like the 99 minute journey to the end credits had been pointless. Even if a sequel were made and the mirror shattered, some characters are screwed for good.
It's a close race, as ABSENTIA and OCULUS are both fine horror movies that take their mission of scaring and unnerving the audience very seriously, but in the end I find ABSENTIA to be the more satisfying viewing experience. While watching it, I'm invested in the mystery and interested in the mythology. Watching OCULUS just makes me feel bad. Being off-putting can be seen as a positive for a horror film, but it doesn't help with my enjoyment of it.

Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you feel that OCULUS should get the win? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Do you have an idea for a Face-Off you'd like to see? Suggestions can be sent to me at [email protected].



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