I gotta say, the horror offerings of 2014 have not been particularly impressive thus far. Of course, I haven’t seen everything, but what I have seen has been…well, “lackluster” is putting it politely. Devil’s Due was mostly garbage, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones inspired my (winning!) Shitfest entry, which basically tells you everything you need to know about its quality. For April, I pinned my hopes to Oculus.
There was already a lot of positive buzz surrounding this film when I made my way to the theater, including an enthusiastic review from my buddy Eric at The IPC, who clearly loved this one (click here to see his write-up). After seeing it, I can confirm that Oculus is probably the cleverest, most interesting horror of the year so far. It’ll make you question everything you see in the film, blurring the lines between past and present, falsehoods and reality. That said, Oculus still didn’t leave me 100% satisfied (don’t hate me, Eric!!!), but it did reassure me that the horror genre still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Synopsis: “A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.” –Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb.
The Good: As I said, this is a very clever film. Oculus weaves together two different time periods very effectively to tell the spooky story of Kaylie (Karen Gillan), her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), and the haunted mirror that ruined their childhood. In the present, Tim has just been released from protective custody, and Kaylie has managed to acquire the dreaded mirror, hoping to reveal to the world what it can do. However, as the siblings dredge up their past, their thoughts drift to when the mirror came into their lives ten years ago. These flashbacks increase in frequency as the film goes on, playing a more important role and even physically affecting the main characters. The flashbacks become so prominent that the audience and the characters themselves begin to question not only what is happening but when it’s happening. That’s where the real horror in this film is: not being able to trust what you see. Watching the two siblings grapple with this is pretty interesting. Kaylie has a take-charge attitude, planning out a meticulous schedule to keep them sane while confronting the mirror. She’s determined to expose the mirror, but she takes every precaution while doing so. I might also add that Gillan, whom I haven’t really seen outside the realm of Doctor Who, plays Kaylie wonderfully. As for Tim, he’s reluctant to be around Kaylie and the mirror, though he insists that he doesn’t believe it’s supernatural. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say the mirror does a real number on him. This is a film that’ll often leave you guessing, and it’s a pretty cool effect.
Favorite scene: Honestly, I don’t know if I can pinpoint something specific. I just loved the way the scenes and the story fit together—how the camera would cut away from present-day Kaylie or Tim and cut back to find their younger counterparts (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) going through something they were just discussing. It flows together seamlessly.
The Bad: Those seeking a truly scary film are likely to be disappointed by Oculus. It’s definitely tense, but it’s never (or very rarely) that frightening. In fact, I almost wonder if the film suffers a little from the supernatural aspect. I can’t get into that too much without spoiling certain aspects, but I will say that I found the supernatural entities a bit…not great. After a lingering view, the ghosties aren’t really so scary anymore. As I said, the real horror is in the mind games, so when the film steps away from that aspect, it doesn’t seem as strong. Even some of the dialogue takes the film out of the scary zone because it is, unfortunately, kind of laughable. I was in a fairly crowded theater, and there were several instances when people laughed at cringeworthy material. For example, there is a flashback to when a dog is being put to sleep. The mother (Katee Sackhoff) clutches a phone, and through that phone we hear the father (Rory Cochrane) say something to the effect of: “We won’t both be coming home.” I half expected that line to be followed by a trombone going “wah waaaaah.” It’s just not how a person would announce a beloved family pet is dead. Likewise, an insult of “grotesque cow” is flung out there. I mean, c’mon. That sounds like an insult from a Shakespearean comedy. Both of these lines come from the father, whom I feel is a poorly developed character—the mother, too, for that matter. Obviously, they’re not the focus of the story—Kaylie and Tim are—but it still wouldn’t hurt to flesh them out. Other than that, I will simply say that I didn’t love the ending. It’s well-done and fitting, I guess, but…nope. I can’t say more. No spoilers!
Least favorite scene: At one point the siblings (or maybe just one of the siblings…I can’t remember) are surrounded by those supernatural ghosties I mentioned earlier, and I was not scared at all. Just felt cheesy.
To Sum It Up: I’ve been hard on this film, but I think that’s mostly because the ending left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. There are many praiseworthy aspects of Oculus—not the least of which being that it’s the first decent horror of the year. It falters here and there, but overall I’d say Oculus is a clever, worthwhile view. I doubt most horror fans would regret a matinee showing.
My Grade: B