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Friday, 16 January 2015

REVIEW - OCULUS (2013)

Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan's American accent, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane
Music by: The Newton Brothers
Release date: April 11, 2014 (United States)


No, it's not a virtual reality gaming headset that will probably fall by the wayside after a few months: it's something a bit better. Oculus is bizarrely produced by WWE Studios (I didn't even know that was a thing) and directed by Mike Flanagan. Based on his acclaimed short film released in 2005, it's a low-budget $5 million effort that - thank God - isn't a found footage movie - but a psychological horror/thriller film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, and was released to general audiences throughout early-to-mid 2014.

Oculus tells the story of two siblings - Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who have reunited after a long absence apart due to a family tragedy. After just being released from a psychiatric hospital, Tim is ready to start a new life, but Kaylie has other plans. She believes that the tragedy they had experienced was due to supernatural causes and holds a reluctant Tim to a pact that they made years ago as children, so that they can destroy the antique mirror in their family home that might just be responsible for their suffering.


Karen Gillan is certainly making a name for herself rather quickly. The young Scottish actress has gone from damn near nothing but Doctor Who to psychological horrors, blockbuster juggernauts like Guardians of the Galaxy, and an upcoming Western thriller where she'll star alongside big names such as Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. If you're used to watching her as Amelia Pond then you might find her American accent a bit droll here, but her character is somewhat unique as far as horror heroines go. She's exceptionally determined and on the edge of sanity, yet more headstrong than her brother and Gillan gives an impressive performance, so much so that she somewhat overshadows Thwaites. Although that's not to say he isn't capable. In fact, the cast is great across the board (even the child actors).

Good thing too, because Oculus is largely a departure from the tired jump scares and poorly-written gorefests that pass for horror movies today, and that a fair amount of audiences seem to crave. 

This may be the umpteenth horror film about mirrors, but Oculus avoids predictable tropes. Absolutely nobody in this film goes to the bathroom, washes their face and finds a nice surprise when they look up at their reflection. Instead it holds itself in higher esteem focusing on very well-executed scenes of tension, characters that you actually care about, and fairly creative storytelling. And while it might not be outright terrifying, it does have some inspired moments, dark imagery, and the ability to be very creepy. It's essentially one big mind game that, at first, seems like it's graduated from the Batman Begins school of storytelling by peppering itself with flashbacks here and there that give you vital information when needed, and then as the film goes on (the climax is where things really start happening), they start to blend with each other and it frequently alternates between two timelines: Keylie and Tim during their current time as adults, and when they were children. These moments put you in the characters' shoes and twist your perceptions of what is and isn't real. But while they interlink seamlessly, Oculus demands more of its audience than most horror movies do and things can get quite confusing, so don't expect to be spoonfed.


Oculus also benefits from a relatively inexperienced yet proficient director/writer with a clear love and understanding for the horror genre. Mike Flanagan's filmography is quite bare when it comes to actual theatrical releases, but his 2011 indie horror "Absentia" was generally acclaimed (unless you're one of those strange people who counts IMDb as an accurate ratings source) and won a sizeable amount of Film Festival awards. His script (thankfully) takes advantage of the fear of the unknown and leaves certain elements ambiguous to the audience that become increasingly morbid the more you think about them, and a lot of elements are very rooted in human nature and what it's capable of when pushed to the brink. Oculus' menace generally comes from the thick atmosphere and suspense that Flanagan has created, and as far as the few jump scares in the movie actually go, they don't feel cheap because the reasons they're effective are due to clever camerawork and the lack of a typical shrieking musical cue. 

But that's not to say Oculus is perfect. As great as she is, we can only watch Karen Gillan rapidly feed us information through monologues for so long, and while it is good that the fear of the unknown is utilised here, there's a slight lack of inconsistency regarding what the mirror can actually do and sometimes its power seems just a tad overblown. And the ending is brilliant, but it raises one or two issues that are very hard for me to even hint at without giving anything away.


The horror genre hasn't given us many "classics" in recent years. Oculus isn't exactly the gamechanger fans were and are still waiting for, and I sincerely hope it doesn't become a franchise (because we all know how horror movie sequels turn out), but if you count it as a 2014 release, it's one of the few entries into the horror genre during that year that hasn't completely crashed and burned. It's defiant, intelligent, and simple yet rooted in eerie complexity. Just stay away from the trailer. It gives away what is arguably the best scene in the entire film.