What is it with horror films these days? Hollywood seems to be filled with too much of the same tricks used over and over again. We either get another found footage disaster of a film, a cheesed up jump scare fest like the Insidious franchise, or an over the top gross out party that never knows when to stop (which we get a little too often these days). The horror genre, like the action genre, has become just another tool Hollywood can use to rake in more cash. But with Oculus, we may be looking at the return of a dying genre. It may fail at half of what it tries to do, but what it does succeed in is offering us a break from the usual nonsense. Here, we finally get a proper “B” horror film; a fun and often exciting game of camera play.
Oculus follows the story of two siblings, Kaylie and Tim, played by Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan and The Giver’s Brenton Thwaites. Ten years after the tragic death of their parents, Tim is released from protective custody back into the world only to learn that Kaylie has tracked down the antique mirror she believes was the true cause of their parents’ death. Hung on a wall in their old home, she surrounds it with cameras and a metal spike hung on the ceiling ready to destroy it if things go out of hand. Tim isn’t happy about this after he’s moved on and accepted the fact that their father was just a lunatic. But Kaylie is determined to prove that this mirror was the cause of not only that incident but many before it.
The film frequently flashes back to the events leading up to their parents’ fatal end, with young Kaylie and Tim played terrifically by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Their mother is played by Katee Sackhoff in one of the best performances I’ve seen from her yet. After their father (played by Rory Cochrane) buys the mirror at an antique shop, things start to get stranger and stranger. From seeing glimpses of strange figures to the father unintentionally pulling his fingernail off. And thus, the mind games begin. The tension rises and the suspense never takes a moment to breathe. And as the film unfolds, the past and the present begin to mirror each other.
Oculus is not the kind of film that relies on jump scares or cheap camera tricks. It’s not a film that thrills by us waiting to see the next nasty thing it’ll do to its characters. It’s a film that wants to play with the minds of the audience. “Did that character really just do that or was it in their head?” And I found that aspect to be quite entertaining.
The two leads never fully convinced me until about the second half of the film. Gillan had a habit of over acting and Thwaites striked me as a bit too well groomed for the character he’s portraying here. But I warmed up to them eventually. It’s in the ending where I noticed the audience reacting differently. It’s a very anticlimactic ending. I don’t want to give away any details here but let’s just say that it doesn’t deliver everything you’d expect a film to usually, but I kind of liked that aspect. It’s quite obvious they’re wanting to cash in on some sequels.
Oftentimes, the film lacks as far as logic is concerned. Things like Kaylie deciding that the best thing to do right after her brother’s tried very hard to get over what happened to him is reunite him with the mirror that destroyed their lives is just preposterous. She knows very well what it’s capable of, so why would you want to put your “mentally unstable” brother and yourself through that kind of trauma again in order to destroy it? But since when has this genre ever been known for being realistic?
I am not familiar with the director, Mike Flanagan, but he seems to know what he’s doing here. He’s crafted a film rich enough in style and, surprisingly, substance.
In a world held under by despicable horror films recycling the same bad tricks and habits over and over again, it’s always appreciated when a horror film comes around that’s actually worth our time and money. Aided by a simple but effective score from The Newton Brothers, Oculus serves up the goods the way a proper “B” horror movie should. It’s only April and yet 2014 has already proved to be one of the most promising years for movies we’ve seen in a very long time. B