Oculus

Oculus  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe words ‘intelligent’ and ‘horror’ don’t follow one another too often but Oculus is the rare example where they do. Oculus concerns two siblings returning to face the torment of their youth. Kaylie and her younger brother Tim are now adults with a dark past. Their parents were murdered, the mysterious details of which are best left unexplained. They make a vow as children to validate the real reason behind their parent’s death. Kaylie has a theory that involves an antique mirror – an ornate heirloom with a miserable history dating back 4 centuries.  She affirms the mirror houses a supernatural force responsible for 45 deaths affecting the previous owners. Tim, whose recollection has been corrupted over time, is skeptical of Kaylie’s outlook. The narrative documents her endeavor to prove the mirror is evil through an elaborate test to document the power of the malevolent object.

The success of any horror picture is reliant on the believability of the actors. They must behave as if they are genuinely in danger and then we have to actually care that they are in peril. Let me say, Kaylie, as played by Karen Gillan, is the MVP of this story.  She not only registers credibly and resourcefulness, but she is appealing. Early on she explains the history of the mirror to her brother in an expository scene that is obviously meant to bring the audience up to speed at the same time. She commands the screen with her charisma. Her brother (Brenton Thwaites) is also likable. Their younger selves are portrayed by exceptional young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Regardless of which timeline we’re in, the characters remain admirable. We presume these siblings like each other because they show respect.  We sympathize with them and worry for their safety. This is rarely the case in horror as of late. Their propriety is such an anomaly that they don’t quite register as American teens, at least not in the way they are usually depicted in this genre. Surprise! Karen Gillan is Scottish. Brenton Thwaites is Australian.  Although you’d never guess. Their accents are flawless.

Oculus is a character driven story shrewdly written and beautifully acted. It’s nice to bask in the sophistication of an intelligently written screenplay that doesn’t depend on jump scares. In fact it’s not really about shocks at all. Rest assured there are some frightful scenes, but the drama is more eerie mystery than horror. That suits this reviewer just fine. As the climax comes to a head, there’s an ambiguous blending between events back when they were growing up and their current identity.  The editing brilliantly parallels past and present. As appearances gets more confusing, we question whether we can actually trust what we are seeing. Is our perception accurate or is it a hallucination? Oculus has technique that aspires to the same rarified cinematic air as films like The Innocents, The Shining and Poltergeist. Perhaps it is more content to sample from those sophisticated influences than create an innovate style of its own. I won’t fault it for the homage. Virtually all horror movies rely on well worn tropes. What makes Oculus something to be admired, is that the presentation has the good sense to appropriate from the best. It’s the most elegantly told supernatural movie of the last few years.

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17 Responses to “Oculus”

  1. As a fan of supernatural horror, and particularly ghost stories, it’s good to hear this one works. I saw the trailer and thought – cliched, special-effects heavy retread of old ground – but I agree with you that regurgitating horror tropes isn’t the worst thing to do, indeed, it’s kind of why we buy the ticket. The problem is when there’s a sense that everything is uninspired, that no new ideas have been layered on to the building blocks of a good horror story. I had low expectations of Oculus but I’m glad I may be pleasantly surprised.

    • It’s funny because I hadn’t seen the trailer before I saw the film. Afterwards I watched it and was surprised how it didn’t accurately convey the spirit of the film at all. The trailer makes it look like a fright fest with lots of scares. It really is more of a slow burn mystery so people expecting to be scared will be disappointed. However those expecting an intelligently written character driven mystery will be pleasantly surprised.

  2. garylee828 Says:

    Good review, Mark. Do you like this better than “The Conjuring”? Do you think I’d like this one?

  3. Wow, no kidding? I figured this was going to be terrible but that does not seem to be the case with my browsing of the very first reviews. I have a pretty darn high standard to be met when I go see horror/mystery thrillers so that’s why a great many of them that I actually bother to spend money on don’t live up at all. Save for The Conjuring and You’re Next (I realize you don’t agree here hehe), the last several years for horror don’t seem to offer much. I am yet to see Insidious, however. . .

  4. Victor De Leon Says:

    Great work on this review, Mark! I am very stoked for this film. I was a big fan of Flanagan’s Absentia (another “intelligent horror”) and I knew he was going to do big things in the genre from starting so small.

    I am glad this movie is getting some really good buzz and it looks like it may re-invigorate supernatural thrillers to come.

    Nice job, man! 🙂

    • Looks like I have another film to add to my “must watch” list.

      • Victor De Leon Says:

        I reviewed it a while back. I think you’ll be very surprised by it. Sort of a dark fable / horror tale. Low key but very effective. Hope you like it and once again, good job on the review, Mark 🙂

  5. garylee828 Says:

    Okay, I just got back. I thought it was good, particularly the first half. The second half became a bit confusing at times as I was not always sure what was reality and what was delusion, as the characters didn’t seem to, as well; with that in mind, it still was able to stay on-track. I loved the set-up, as I thought it was well-executed and intriguing. The writer and director practiced the often neglected concept of “Less is More” which is often highly effective in horror/thrillers.

    I thought the ending was good, but I didn’t “like” it just b/c I was hoping for a different outcome; but it was clever, nonetheless. With that ending in mind, they HAVE to come out with a sequel! There is a lot more of this story to be told, and someone needs to get what they have coming to them. I would hate for the story to end there. Which is the sign of a good movie. Let’s just not make Insidious 2. lol.

    • The ending definitely “screams” out for a sequel. I find that a little annoying, but I enjoyed the film. Not being able to tell reality from a hallucination was really sort of the point at the end. I really got a kick out of that confusion.

  6. I run hot amd cold with horror but this sounds like a great one. Even when watching the trailer, something just looked like it would work.

    Probably won’t see in theaters, but a definite rental.

    • I know what you mean. A vulgar horror movie can often achieve a depth so low that the it ends up being the worst thing I see all year. You’re Next was an example of that. This was the complete opposite: a sophisticated, well written mystery with characters you actually want to see live.

  7. Wow. I’m shocked to hear that this movie turned out to be a good one. The previews made it seem really stupid in that done-to-death dumb horror kind of way. I was honestly prepared to skip right over Oculus, but now I feel like I have to check it out based on your review.

    • I’ve gotten to the point where I avoid trailers unless it’s for a big budget fantasy like Godzilla or TMNT. They usually spoil the film in some way.

  8. This kind of horror was very clever. I love smart, creative and well acted movies. They explained the story in the movie, like you said. And I loved that. You don’t need gore or turned up volumes when eery things work just as well. 4 stars.

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