Oculus (United States, 2013)

April 11, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Oculus Poster

For a horror movie, Oculus is surprisingly lean on the scares. It's more interested in playing tricks with perception and bending reality. Ambitious material for director/editor Mike Flanagan (expanding from his award-winning short) and, if he doesn't fully achieve his goals, he can at least be lauded for trying something different. Oculus isn't cut from the generic whole cloth of seemingly every other horror film. It tries to be distinctive not only in the way the narrative unfolds but in retaining its convictions to the very end.

The biggest hurdle faced by Oculus relates to the set-up and that's the area in which it strains credulity to the breaking point. The central conceit establishes that an ancient mirror is a gateway of evil. The specifics aren't divulged but the mirror can warp reality and possibly provide a conduit by which demons or evil spirits can enter our world. The film's leading lady, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), is aware of the mirror's pernicious nature. Her intention is to destroy it. But, in the name of science, she intends to make video recordings of it and run tests, thereby allowing it the opportunity to twist her perceptions. For someone with such a single-minded goal and a clear-headed approach to it, Kaylie makes a series of boneheaded decisions.

She is joined in her endeavor by her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who is newly released from a mental asylum. Together, they plan to exorcise the evil, but only after assembling an airtight case establishing its responsibility for a series of past murders. Oculus interweaves Kaylie and Tim's present with flashbacks of what happened to them a dozen years ago when their family moved into the house and took possession of the mirror. In less than two weeks, a happy family is torn apart with Kaylie's mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff), and father, Alan (Rory Cochrane), falling prey to the mirror.

For a while, Flanagan takes his story down a fascinating path. What if the mirror is just a mirror and Kaylie has devised an elaborate supernatural mythos to explain acts of random, mundane cruelty? Tim provides the voice of reason, offering counter-arguments to every one of Kaylie's points. Flanagan eventually abandons this and concedes that the mirror is a source of evil but it leaves one wondering whether the road not taken might have led in a more interesting direction.

As the night wears on, past collides with present. This part of the film is effectively presented. We're never sure what's real, what events are memories, and how to distinguish illusion from truth. The audience becomes complicit; we're as uncertain as the characters. It's a bold way to allow the story to unfold but it leeches away terror in favor of intellectual uncertainty. Oculus becomes more of a puzzle than a haunted house story. There are some genuine shocks but not many "boo!" moments. The movie's most unsettling scene occurs when Kaylie takes a bite of an apple.

The cast lacks star power, demanding that Oculus succeed or fail based on intrinsic elements rather than the appeal of a headlining A-lister. Sci-fi fans will recognize a couple of familiar faces. For several years, Karen Gillan played Amy Pond, faithful sidekick to Matt Smith's incarnation of Doctor Who. Katee Sackhoff was Starbuck in Ron Moore's reimaging of Battlestar Galactica. Breton Thwaites has a nice TV-centric resume and Rory Cochrane has been in the business for a couple of decades toiling away on TV and in mostly indie productions. The performances are all solid although I was most taken by Gillan's no-nonsense approach to Kaylie. She doesn't seem like a typical horror movie heroine, although the stupidity of some of her actions defies logic.

With its overreliance on first-person narratives and by-the-numbers plotting, the horror genre has become stale and predictable. Oculus isn't a perfect antidote to all of this but it's sufficiently different to hold one's attention and what it lacks in the way of a fear factor it makes up for through suspense.

Oculus (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2014-04-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1