Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Karen Gillian, Brenton Thwaites, Katie Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garett Ryan
Plot: Kaylie (Gillian) is obsessed about a family heirloom, an old mirror, that she is convinced was involved with the murder of her parents, dragging her reluctant brother (Thwaites) along to prove her theory and destroy the demon inside.
The weird thing about Oculus is that the scares don’t really kick in right off the bat and when they do creep into play, they don’t happen in quite the traditional sense. For example, Oculus has far too much fun playing with the psychological element of Oculus, suggesting that the two leads imagined the supernatural power of the mirror. This means that for the first half of the movie, there is no tangible proof that this is even a horror movie. As Karen Gillian’s character rattles off the researched history of the mirror’s suspected victims, including an eerily detached account of her own past with the mirror, her brother, Tim, counters her memories with his own. Kaylie’s theories are good ones, but Tim always has a logical explanation up his sleeve that stinks of coincidence, but could be possible. It plays with the imagination of children, as these adults try to hack into the memories of their eleven year old selves, every new piece of information perhaps being distorted by either the suspected demon within the mirror or simply time itself. This playful take on the horror genre doesn’t actually hurt Oculus. In fact, it does the complete opposite, making this movie one of the most intelligent haunted house thrillers I have seen in recent years.
When the scares do come in, they don’t go for the obvious ‘jumping out of the shadows’ routine. You can imagine James Wan picking up the script for this and treating us to two hours of Kaylie and Tim being stalked by supernatural apparitions, conjured by the mirror. However, there is something far more intelligent than that about Flanagan’s direction. The first scare doesn’t have a sudden cut or terrifying score helping it. There is simply a tracking shot of Rory Cochrane’s dad walking around the house and something sinister stands there in the shadows for the briefest of instants. It is a ‘blink and you miss it’ moment, but the fun comes from the fact that we aren’t even sure we saw it. Another scare – probably the biggest one of the film – again has no creepy score. The shadowy figure returns and disappears behind a door, only to reappear unexpectedly a second later, closer and clearer than we would like. The truth is Oculus doesn’t need to be scary in the same way Insidious or Paranormal Activity is. The dark history and power of the mirror is ominous enough to earn our intimidation. There is a brilliant scene involving an apple and a light bulb that instantly proves the malice and power of this being. As soon as we are aware of the mirror’s capabilities, then we are glued to the screens, unsure if the leads have the know-how to defeat it or not.
I am not going to lie, there were times when I wanted a more traditional horror. The third act could have come along quicker and when it does come, it would have been the perfect excuse to have some James Wan type tricks coming out of the hat. We were there in the palm of the director’s hand, so connected to the back story of the mirror that we would have been easily susceptible to some memorable jump scares. Perhaps it could have come across as cheap, but personally I feel that the lack of true terror makes Oculus the kind of horror that will drift away from the pack when it comes to the supernatural horrors of this decade. The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity will overshadow discussion, even if Oculus is probably, from a directional and story-telling perspective, the better movie. Oculus is more sinister than scary, but perhaps some fans might like this different style of horror.
But the thing that makes Oculus such a great movie for me is definitely the characters. One of the other reasons Flanagan takes his time before introducing the mirror’s powers is that he has two leads that are totally different from anything we have seen before in a horror movie. Karen Gillian is incredible here and it is a shame that this movie is a little too low-key for any potential nominations to come from it. Rather than being treated to the usual dumb victims, Kaylie has thought up every possible outcome and her meticulously planning of her showdown with the mirror is impressive. She is a refreshingly bright character to be leading the way through this story. Her relationship with the mirror is an interesting one too, as she treats it like an old friend or a pet (neatly juxtaposed with the fact she doesn’t even name the dog in this movie). As the movie begins, Oculus feels like a battle of wits between the mirror and her character, making the events that unfold much more exciting. It is almost as if the mirror ups its game to take on this worthy foe. The other actors that impressed me here with the two child actors, far more impressive than anyone else hanging around the movie scene these days. They had a tough performance each to work with, but they knocked the ball out of the park.
Final Verdict: Great story, well-acted and Mike Flanagan’s direction is fresh and interesting. Perhaps not quite as scary as we wanted, but Oculus makes up for it with originality.