‘Oculus’ Movie Review – Revitalizes supernatural horror with an essential dose of heart and smarts

Check out all of our “Oculus” movie reviews here… multiple perspectives.

Review #1
Oculus
Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Directed by Mike Flanagan
USA, 2013

Thanks to the likes of James Wan, paranormal horror is all the rage. From Paranormal Activity to Insidious and The Conjuring, audiences are irretrievably hooked to tales of nuclear families being bloodlessly menaced by only-fleetingly-visible entities of malicious intent. What’s remarkable about Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, which follows his no-budget wonder Absentia, is how it manages to wring genuine dread from a beyond-worn subgenre simply by paying close attention to the realities of its deeply troubled characters. Oculus functions equally well as a tragic psychodrama as it does a horror film.

Flanagan appears to have taken inspiration from Stephen King’s seminal It, in which a group of childhood friends reunite to vanquish an evil force that has long plagued their town. Where King’s novel (and the TV-movie adaptation) adopted a neatly bifurcated structure, Flanagan flits between past and present, sometimes occupying the same frame. The film opens in present day, with 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) being discharged from a mental ward, 11 years after a series of incredibly traumatic events in which he was an active participant. His older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is there to greet him with open arms – and with the news that she’s made all the preparations necessary to destroy the object she believes is truly responsible for the events of their childhood: an antique mirror with a storied history. As Kaylie and Tim spar over the nature of the ordeal they endured and its true nature, we flash back to the period preceding the incident, with their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) exhibiting increasingly erratic and abusive behavior.

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While the issue of whether or not their shared childhood trauma can be blamed on supernatural evil or good old-fashioned mental illness is definitively settled before very long (unless you have a particularly generous sense of creative interpretation), Oculus finds ambiguity and purpose elsewhere. Unlike in the recent spate of safe PG-13 would-be chillers, the sense of danger, disorientation, and dread is palpable throughout, even in the flashbacks, where the outcome is preordained. Flanagan (also editor) circumvents that sense of inevitability through careful exploitation of the physical space that connects the two time periods. Their efforts ensure that past and present remain inextricable, despite Tim’s efforts to put the past behind him and start life anew.

If you’ve seen Absentia, it’s hard not to be taken aback by just how polished Oculus is from the very first frame – troublingly so, in fact. Part of the joy of Absentia was in its incredibly against-genre-stereotype casting (especially the film’s lead, Courtney Bell, who was 7 months pregnant at the time), which helped lend an eerie verisimilitude to an increasingly outlandish story. It’s somewhat of a disappointment, then, to see Flanagan cast more traditionally palatable leads, though that’s not to diminish the above-genre-par work on display, especially by Gillan, who imbues Kaylie with steely determination without dipping into outright cartoonishness. The film’s one novel bit of casting comes with Sackhoff, who is generally reserved for straight-up Female Badass roles thanks to her work as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica. At various points in the film, she’s allowed to radiate warmth, menace, and mortal terror. It’s a surprisingly tricky role that Sackhoff is more than capable of handling. Rory Cochrane’s role suffers from its over-familiarity, but Cochrane makes up for it by opting for quiet, cruel menace rather than Jack Torrance-style theatrics.

It’s really in Oculus’s final half-hour that Flanagan distinguishes himself as a horror filmmaker poised for greatness. As past and present become increasingly difficult to distinguish, and the threat becomes more invasive, making it impossible for Tim and Kaylie to trust even their most basic senses, the sensation of pure viewer disorientation takes hold. That’s what makes it even more jarring when, soon after that fever pitch hits, the film just ends, albeit in gut-wrenching fashion. Even at 105 minutes, Oculus feels a little skimpy, possibly because the emotional depths plunged into by its characters feel like they could support a significantly longer film. That hurts the film to some degree, but it signals great things for Flanagan, who has already cemented himself as one of the most promising genre auteurs working today.

– Simon Howell

Review #2

It is rarer than unicorn octuplets these days to encounter a genuinely creepy, refreshingly inventive horror film given the genre’s remorseless penchant for unleashing increasingly formulaic sequels or cannibalistic remakes of past atrocities, so the inclusion of Oculus in the Midnight Madness strand of the Toronto Film Festival seems destined to delight fans of things that go bump in the night. This is a terrifically creepy and genuinely innovative addition to the inventory. Despite the rather ridiculous premise, which sounds like a thin gruel of suspenseful ingredients, and the potential of yet another found footage exercise given the emphasis on cameras, Oculus plays more on the uncertainty of nightmares, and the gulf between memory and imagination. As Flanagan inexorably turns the thumb screws, the film slithers between the parallel timelines of the original tragedy and the orphans’ frantic bid to absolve their souls, in a quite brilliant deployment of genre mechanics and superbly edited spooky setpieces, building a nervous rhythm which is sustained throughout the film. The Shining is, of course, one of the first reference points this film emits ,given the similar themes of domestic discord and the spine-tingling shenanigans escalating in a single claustrophobic location, particularly the father’s swift descent into homicidal, patriarchal rage.

Meet the poor Russell siblings. Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just been released after 15 years in a mental asylum after witnessing the brutal murder of his parents in the newly resided suburban family home at the tender age of 6. His similarly orphaned sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who also witnessed the fatal event, is convinced that the culprit was a haunted mirror which drove their father (Rory Cochrane) to homicidal insanity against their mother (Katee Sackhoff). Using her skills as a auction house associate, she has acquired the malevolent heirloom alongside a coldly passionate drive for vengeance. After years of therapy on the government’s dime, Tim believes Kaylie is refusing to accept the sins of their emotionally aggressive and unfaithful father, that there was no supernatural interference, and that they are haunted by an all-too-tangible and earthbound evil.

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Tim is initially resistant to Kaylie’s plan to return to the scene of the crime, reinstalling the mirror and recording— through a phalanx of video cameras and equipment—the inevitable supernatural phenomenon, another in the abhorrent antique’s 200-year grisly history of suicide, murder, and madness. Eventually, Kaylie convinces him to stay, to perhaps coax out and destroy the evil spirits and honour the promise they made to each other on that traumatic night.

Oculus also plays on the mist of memories and impact of trauma on an adolescent, evolving mind, with Michael and Kaylie arguing in a paranoid fashion over the horrific events that altered the course of their unhappy lives, fragments of recollections contradicting each other’s cognizance as the story moves inexorably toward a shattering, if predictable, puncturing climax. For a relatively new director, the auguries are clear of a major new talent to watch. Upon reflection, Oculus is one of the standout American horror films of the past decade.

— John McEntee

Review #3

People have always been fascinated by mirrors. Something about the ability to see ourselves is utterly unsettling, making it a natural focal point for horror films. Oculus operates as a mind bending, gasp inducing film that’s as clever as it is scary.

On his 21st birthday, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is finally released from the mental institution he had been interred in since childhood. When his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) picks him up, much to his horror, he discovers that she has been obsessively pursuing the Lasser Glass, a preternatural mirror that was involved in the deaths of their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) a decade ago. She reminds him of the promise they made that night, in the wake of their parents’ deaths, to hunt down and destroy the object. This triggers the parallel plotline that runs throughout the movie recounting the events leading up to and that very night. As the night wears on (in both timelines), the mirror’s influence on the two start to descend into insanity, blurring realities, memories and perception.

With fantastic editing, the film achieves not only creates plenty of gory, pop out scares, but also raises notions of other more terrify ideas. Horror can lie in obsession, and there is no greater personal horror than a loss of one’s perception. True to the mirror’s abilities, audiences will start to doubt what direction the film goes in. Constantly shifting, Oculus is a smart, scary horror film that will keep audiences guessing to the point of madness.

 

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