It is not hard to see why both horror fans and general audiences are growing more cynical in their attitudes towards modern horror films. Horror fans are eager for the next big thing, and the general audiences are usually suckered in to putting a new horror film to the number one spot at the box office on opening weekend, only for dissatisfaction and bad word of mouth taking the film below the top five the next week. Occasionally, people will find a gem that will do for the time being. The last two years brought us films like Evil Dead, Sinister, The Woman in Black, V/H/S 1 & 2, The Conjuring and You’re Next. None of these have been hailed as anything revolutionary or classic; the only one that comes close is The Conjuring, which for a horror film, received outstanding box office success and rare critical acclaim (even though I loved the film, I do hesitate to call a film that’s essentially an homage to 70’s haunted house flicks a new classic haunted house flick). 2014 has so far brought us Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a spinoff of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and Devil’s Due, the found-footage Devil baby movie. Both were ultimately unimpressive, so will Oculus finally bring 2014 its first good horror film?
Oculus follows Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites). They experienced a traumatic event in their childhood that resulted in the death of their mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff), by the hands of their father, Alan (Rory Cochrane), as well as the murder conviction of Tim for killing Alan. After 11 years, Tim is now 21; he is considered mentally stable and no longer a danger to anyone, so he is released. He meets with Kaylie, who has already made a plan for their reunion. The next night, she sets out to prove that everything that happened to their family is because of a supernatural force coming from an antique mirror. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
In all honesty, going in with no strong opinion either way, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Starting off with the acting, I thought the it was fantastic. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites work very well together and they feel believable as a brother and sister with conflicting beliefs and trying to make sense of the things happening around them. The two do great with adding some dimension to their characters. Karen especially does a good job with portraying a character that is just on the brink of insanity, while also not being over-the-top. Rory Cochrane is solid as the father, slowly building up intensity that shows in his face in a way that just gets under your skin. Katee Sackhoff kind of threw me off at first, mostly because I never thought I’d see her play a suburban housewife (and it certainly doesn’t help when she still has those incredibly toned biceps), but she ends up being really good, both when she’s a concerned housewife and as a psycho under the influence of the mirror. It’s definitely one of her better performances. However, truth be told, I have to give major props to Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who play the younger Kailey and Tim, respectively. It’s hard enough to be a child actor and pull off a convincing performance, even in a horror film, and especially when they have to carry half the film. It’s a thin line to ride on, and it could have easily fallen flat, but these two do a great job handling the grim subject matter in a believable way and coming off as strong characters in their own right.
The other element that the film really excels at is its direction. Director and co-writer, Mike Flanagan, does a really good job creating an unnerving atmosphere that keeps the film consistently creepy and intense. I really like that he keeps the jump scares to a minimum, I recall seeing only a few jump scares, and they didn’t detract much from the film at all. Instead he relies mostly on atmosphere and suspense. The film is incredibly suspenseful, and practically had my attention from the very beginning. The film also has an interesting aspect regarding its writing, in which the film constantly switches back and forth between the past and present, and they flow well into each other, which is very much due to the unbelievably well editing by Mike Flanagan himself. I also appreciate that that Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard, go out of their way to make the characters act in a smart and logical manner in context of the story, granted it’s still a horror film, so there are some hiccups in that department, but nothing too infuriating. The back and forth between the Kaylie and Tim, in which Kaylie tries to convince him of the supernatural, while Tim tries to convince her of the logical explanations to their situation, keeps things interesting as the story goes on. Usually in supernatural horror, the skeptic character is usually taking their conviction to an absurd extreme, whereas here, Tim’s transition from skepticism of Kaylie’s ideas to understanding her point-of-view is believable. Another fascinating aspect is in the third act, when the line between what’s real and what’s not is blurred, and it adds a lot of fun and intrigue, providing a lot of memorable moments.
The film does have its fair share of problems, no surprise there. One problem that can be a make-it-or-break-it for some is that the film really is not that scary. The film gave me just one brief jump, and that was it. Granted this is a subjective thing, so everyone’s experience will be a bit different, but for me, I think I’ll sleep perfectly fine after watching the film. The film also does not do many new things; apart from the time jumping, the film is full of things that I have seen before, and in some cases, seen it done better. Many set-ups that the film makes have very predictable payoffs, the ending in particular is something I saw coming within 20-30 minutes before it happened. And like I previously stated, even though I really appreciate the effort in making the characters act with intelligence, there are a few moments where I certainly questioned the logic behind certain decisions of the characters, some plot points were a bit confusing and I’m sure there a couple plot holes here and there that will be found by anyone looking for them. Also (and this is more of a nitpick), there were a few lines of dialogue for the children (who by the film’s math should be 10 and 12), that felt like they were meant for children that were a few years younger. It wasn’t too distracting, but it was noticeable for me.
Oculus is by no means a new horror classic, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the film is still really good. Even if many of the ideas are not original, what matters most, especially for horror, is execution, and Oculus, though flawed, is very well executed. The film’s lack of actual scares and predictable scenes is made up by the great acting, riveting suspense, and a creative storytelling mechanic. Even though I can see a potential for a franchise (given the ending), I don’t see any sequels adding anything more interesting; the film works best on its own (like that has that stopped anyone before). So, if you’re in the mood for a creepy, suspenseful film about an evil mirror, then Oculus is definitely worth your time, just don’t be surprised when you’re not jumping every 30 seconds.
Side Note: Oculus is the first horror film about a mirror that I’ve seen. So, I did a bit of research to see what, if any, other similar films are out there. Oddly enough, I found quite a few for anyone interested. There’s Mirrors (2008) & Mirrors 2 (2010), The Boogey Man (1980), Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005), the four Mirror, Mirror films (1990-2000), The Witch’s Mirror (1962), The Dark Mirror (1946), Bloody Mary (2006), Dark Mirror (2007), and Into the Mirror (2003). There’s plenty more; I guess mirror-related horror films are their own subgenre now, but then again, what isn’t?