‘Oculus’ Hit Me In The Center Of My Horror Fandom (Movie Review)
Kaylie: You promised me you would never forget what really happened.
Oculus is a clever, well-crafted, and scary good time at the movies. As far as horror movies go, for having a premise with the logline: a brother and sister try to outsmart a killer mirror, the screenplay for this film is very smart. The film is a strong character drama that just happens to have a supernatural element, but the acting is very strong and the approach to the story keeps things moving. Oculus has its share of scares too, but they are well-earned, with developed suspense and a nastiness that is more implied than on display. I am always happy to enjoy a good horror movie, regardless of the sub-genre or filmmaking style on display, but Oculus really caught me off guard with how effective it felt in a variety of ways.
The film is divided into two stories that are played together and even overlap in ways. One is set in the present; the other is set ten years earlier. They both revolve around a brother and sister. When they were younger, Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) had to deal with the strange behavior of their parents (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), who were slowly losing it, likely due to the presence of an antique mirror. As grownups, after Tim (Brenton Thawaites) is released from a mental hospital, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) involves him in her plan to expose the mirror for what it is: an object possessed by some sort of evil supernatural entity.
I could almost say it is less the actual premise and more of the approach that makes it so compelling, but that would suggest there is not something creepy about a mirror that makes you believe you are seeing things in an odd or off-putting way. There is a horror cliché that surrounds characters who look in a mirror, turn, and then look back, only to find something that was not there before. This has become easy fodder for jump scares, but Oculus is above this. We certainly have certain reveals shown in the mirror at times, but it could almost be replaced by another object and achieve a similar result. The key is the way in which these character regard this item and how the film has the characters utilizing trials and experimentation in the current timeline, with a more standard horror movie playing out in the past.
It truly is fitting that there is a mirror as the focal point of this film actually, as the way Oculus jumps back and forth in time serves as a good reflection in regards to these characters. As kids, Kaylie and Tim are forced to deal with a situation that is out of their hands. They cannot challenge their parents and were unable to do anything but watch them go insane for bizarre reasons. As adults, Kaylie has taken charge, with a goal that relies on exposing the truth, as preposterous as it sounds. A clever way to make this work is by having Tim be fresh out of a mental hospital. It puts him into the position of the audience, as we are learning everything in the way he does, given that he has suppressed so many memories, leading up to the events in the current timeline in this film. Oculus is a good example of a film that figures out a way to dump exposition on us, without feeling out of place or perfunctory. Learning about the events of the past up to a point is just as strong as watching the younger versions of these character deal with the events taking place at that time.
There is also terror to be found. I would not say Oculus is one of the scariest films I have seen, but it does a fine job of being freaky and fairly nasty, without going overboard. This is an R-rated feature, but the violence on display is not absurd. We see some bloody sights, sure, but nothing I would consider too gross. The film uses these kinds of effects when it has to and for the sake of making the audiences feel uncomfortable, rather than grossed out. Oculus gets a lot of mileage out of the way in which this mirror does its business, which is by playing tricks on those in its path. The result is sometimes messy, but there is far more to enjoy in the way these actions are portrayed and twisted around on the viewer. One could almost say this film cheats in order to avoid cheating, but that is the sort of ingenious quality that co-writer/director Mike Flanagan is able to achieve in this film.
To go with the horror of it all, Flanagan’s construction of this film is great. He slides in between timelines seamlessly, with a wonderful use of camera movement to inform the viewer on where we are and when we are. He gets across both the tension and the drama of it all with some subtle camera tricks as well as some direct cutting for emphasis. The layout of the main location in this film, the childhood home of Kaylie and Tim, is handled well-enough to keep me from questioning anything not related to what was occurring on screen at the time and the tone is consistently moody, with only mere moments of levity. While Oculus is a serious horror film, it does not feel weighed down by the lack of fun these characters are having on screen.
It is largely due to the actors that makes the serious approach so acceptable. While this is a horror feature, the film works as a strong character drama and paranoia thriller. The past timeline features adults arguing and silently dealing with issues that young kids would truly be confused over. Sackhoff and Cochrane do fine work as parents dealing with issues that seem to come out of nowhere, but fitting of the type of domestic drama that it could appear to be from the outside. The younger actors do a fine job of acting perplexed and terrified when the time calls for it. Moving up to the present, I really enjoyed the determination of adult Kaylie, especially since I have only seen Karen Gillan as a very bubbly personality. I actually thought I was going to really dislike Brenton Thawaites as the adult Tim, but the way he battles his sister, as far as her theories go, regarding the mirror, and the way he eventually comes around, I saw some real pathos in his character and where things went, overall, in this story.
Oculus is a compelling horror film that could easily spawn a slew of follow-ups. I may not appreciate the inevitable sequels that Blumhouse Productions may churn out, but if I did, it would likely be due to future films not losing what works best – the strong character work to make a premise like this have more weight. The film is clever in its presentation, smart in its writing, and unsettling as a viewing experience. It is a violent feature, without being overdone, it is scary without relying on big shock moments, and it is serious, without feeling like a drag. Oculus had a strong effect on me, as the film had way more to offer than just some good scares.
Tim: Why don’t we just end it right now and smash the damn thing?