Release Date: June 14th, 2014
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaties
Perhaps the most commendable thing about Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is that, for the most part, it refrains from divulging the usual genre conventions. In an era where horror isn’t just for Halloween and franchises reign handily over standalone outings, a scary movie that deviates from the Final Destination school of fright is a welcome sight. It’s a shame that the film’s increasingly choppy narrative slips from the grasp of its director and his co-writer Jeff Howard, but there is a lot to admire here.
We jump between two timelines throughout: in the present day Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Breton Thwaites) return to their childhood home in order to confront and “kill” a spirit emanating from an antiquated mirror. Kaylie believes the mirror is haunted, that it infiltrated their parents’ minds and subsequently caused their deaths — events retold in the other timeline.
Tim isn’t as convinced. At the beginning of the film he is in the process of being discharged from a psychiatric hospital having come to the conclusion that the aforementioned tragedy was non-supernatural. An underlying darkness is already in full flow when we meet the characters; Tim would rather avoid speaking about the past whereas Kaylie is noticeably desperate to face her demons head on. “I know you’ll never understand that part of my life,” she tells her fiancé (who is otherwise surplus to requirements) and you get the sense she has been plotting glass-shattering comeuppance for years.
Actually, it’s more than a sense. In a scintillating ten minute scene, Kaylie meticulously describes and explains the bleak history of the mirror, the just-as-bleak history of her family and how she plans to prove that the artefact is engaged in dark arts. Its function could be construed as lazy storytelling — getting one character to spout exposition rather than conjuring up something more inventive — and it does raise a few outdated genre tropes (smashing mirrors is bad luck, apparently). However, Gillan’s superb form elevates the scene high above its promise. She is determined, her emotion buried beneath a precise exterior. The Scot is arguably the best thing on screen, despite her deep homegrown accent occasionally escaping off the ends of sentences.
Kaylie’s tenacious exterior isn’t instantly appealing, nor is it off-putting, but her doggedness is compelling. She seems pleased when the mirror exhibits an array of unusual reflections, including a sheet-covered mannequin that doesn’t actually exist, and treats the object like a living creature. The film’s immediate mystique owes much to The Newton Brothers’ slightly bulging score too. As the tension mounts it resembles the echo of a pulsating heartbeat. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is steady and likes to linger, particularly during the first half of Oculus.
Alternating between two different timelines is a premise that bears significant intrigue. The television show Lost expertly utilised the flashback technique, and films such as The Usual Suspects and — to a lesser degree — Sinister have successfully dabbled in the method too. For a while it is effective here, bolstering the taut atmosphere as events in the past add more emotional verve to events in the present.
The estate, where most of the film takes place, is put to proficient use as memories fade back into reality with technical dexterity. It is like something out of a modern Guillermo del Toro flick: grand with wooden floorboards that undoubtedly croak at night, and full of mystery and immaculate character. Yet, in a neat contrast, the unsavoury mirror looks out of place, like something more suited to del Toro’s classically-set brand of filmmaking.
We’re left to wonder if there is actually anything going on beyond the horror — does Oculus present a slant on the effects of ill mental health, or the tribulations of a dysfunctional family? Kaylie shouts with joy when she realises she isn’t making it all up, that it’s all spookily true. Tim has been psychologically ‘healed’ so to speak, though we know from the get-go that he has always been sane (this is a horror film after all). The mirror encourages a rift between Kaylie and Tim’s parents by manifesting as an intrusive female stranger. If anything, the piece touches upon these subjects without really investigating them.
Unfortunately, the constant jumping between timelines becomes increasingly frequent, meaning proceedings in both the past and present invariably lose momentum. Sticking primarily in the contemporary space would have been more interesting because the characters’ past is more obvious. Flanagan’s swift editing is technically well executed, but annoyingly misguided. The point is to smartly fill in biographical gaps and for Kaylie and Tim to encounter a growing sense of alienation. We are supposed to feel unsettled, not confused.
The past is awash with a Kubrick-lite aura, as if the writers co-wrote the screenplay with The Shining on in the background. As dad Alan, Rory Cochrane adopts Jack Nicholson’s wavering sanity, while Katee Sackhoff’s Marie takes up Shelley Duvall’s fearful paranoia. A historical bathtub death even finds its way on board, hinting at that disgusting scene with the old woman in Kubrick’s film. Both Cochrane and Sackhoff are creepy enough in their respective roles.
In the end, Oculus doesn’t quite amount to the sum of its parts. But it does break tradition — the protagonists run straight towards evil as opposed to it chasing them — and Karen Gillan is a consistently excellent screen presence. For about an hour this is really enticing, imaginative stuff. A sequel doesn’t sound so scary after all.
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