Film Review – Oculus
Just to be perfectly clear, the trailer for the new horror film Oculus sucks. Big time. I recently saw the preview in a movie theater and was disappointed by how crappy it made the movie seem. The film has a lot going for it, but almost none of that was there. It just looks like another cheap sudden-movements-are-the-scariest-thing-in-the-world rehash of everything that has come out in the past couple of years. Turns out, this film is much, much better than that. It’s a horror genre mash-up containing ancient evil, video camera footage, domestic nastiness, gaslighting, sudden movement scares, and a scary lady with long black hair. (Although she manages to keep it out of her face. Barrettes people!) Not everything works equally well, but it’s good enough to justify a much better trailer.
Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has been discharged from what appears to be a secure mental institution. He has just turned 21 and his doctor feels he is safe to both himself and others. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) meets him in the parking lot, helps get him set up for his new life, and then reminds him he made a promise to remember what really happened before he was institutionalized. Many years before, Tim killed their father (Rory Cochrane) after he tortured and killed their mother (Katee Sackhoff) and started coming after the two kids. Tim has spent the last 10 years or so coming to grips with what he did and taking responsibility for what happened. Kaylie wants him to drop all that and acknowledge that an evil mirror is the true culprit behind all the violence. She has done research on all the previous owners of the mirror and has uncovered a pattern of madness and murder. She wants to prove the innocence of her father and brother by recording the evil in action. Tim just wants to protect his fragile recovery and get his sister to realize what happened in the past was nothing but a marriage gone very, very wrong.
Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan, is a low budget film that makes the most of its assets – the actors. Everybody does a really good job, especially the folks playing young Kaylie and Tim, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. The film relies a lot on flashbacks, and towards the end of the film, time feels more fluid. The past and present appear to intersect, and this handling of time helps elevate this film above its subject matter. The plot here is not particularly original, but is treated in such a way that things feel fresher than they actually are. The film also works really well as a portrayal of a family slowly disintegrating under the strain of an unseen force. Sackhoff and Cochrane make a believable couple who deal with the normal stresses every family with children and bills face. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the decidedly worse, and paranoia and delusion become the guiding forces in their family dynamics.
What doesn’t work so well? The creepy people. Evil visitors from the past look evil and there’s really no need for it. And to be honest, there is no real need for any of them in the movie. (Well, maybe in one scene, but without the makeup.) The true horror in this movie is what happens within the family. As the children watch their parent’s mental states degrade and the past and present intertwine, things get pretty freaking scary. Some of the most obvious horror elements really aren’t needed, and I felt they distracted from the overall nastiness of what was going on. (I had a similar reaction when watching The Descent. I was so relieved when the monsters finally showed up because I got a break from the scary shit that was going on in the spelunking scenes.) Also, I don’t like the ending of Oculus. I’m not going to say anything about it other than it seems geared towards setting things up for a sequel. It’s not a bad ending, but I didn’t find it satisfying.
I was surprised how much I ended up liking this movie. The trailer made me want to hate it, but I was won over pretty quickly. The poster says that it is from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious. For those of you are tired of these films being reworked to death, this is something a little different. It’s reliance on minimal sets and effects mark it clearly as a low-budget feature, but it makes the best of those limitations. For all of its faults, it’s got a strong script, and that goes a long way to make this a cut above a lot of the cookie-cutter horror fare that’s been released lately.