by Philip Price
The word oculus is defined as a round or eyelike opening or design, of which in the case of this new horror film is in reference to a mirror that acts as a curse to all those who own it. This is essentially “The Amityville Horror” or any number of possession tales where an object elicits evil qualities over those in its presence and makes them do horrible things. The fact that the object this scary movie decided to revolve around was a mirror, a simple household amenity where the most frightening thing that comes along with it is typically the superstition that if you break it you get seven years of bad luck, but hey, people are hard pressed for original ideas these days and so it’s hard to knock anyone for at least trying. This seems especially true when it comes to the horror genre as by this point in time we've pretty much seen every trick in the book played out time and time again. “Oculus” isn't necessarily about the specifics of the story it's telling nor is it even about the scares as I wouldn't say I found myself frightened at all throughout the entire film, but instead writer/director Mike Flanagan, along with co-writer Jeff Howard, have placed the emphasis on how the story is told and playing with the conventions of structure and pre-determined expectation to give the audience a strange disconnection to the material that allows us to continually be interested in what is happening, while never really knowing what to expect or what to brace ourselves for. While there was positive buzz around the film and despite the fact I'd heard little about it in regards to promotional campaigns the tone the posters displayed was one of pure mystery, pure creepiness. If there is one word to sum up “Oculus” it is indeed creepy. It never reaches the heights of being flat-out scary and it is far too precise to be chopped together for a few jump scares and little more substance than that, but while “Oculus” may not prove to be a great horror film it lends itself well to demonstrating what can be done with a pure genre film when even the slightest of envelopes is pushed. For that, Flanagan may not be showered with praise, but in the eyes of this movie fan and someone increasingly hard to please when it comes to this specific genre I found “Oculus” superbly intriguing and well-executed in a manner that allowed me to forgive its lack of real scares and not take for granted the genuine chills it delivered in its final moments.
Beginning in 2002 we meet the Russell family as they move into their new, very expensive-looking house and are introduced to a mother, Marie (Katie Sackhoff) and father Alan (Rory Cochrane), as well as their two young children, Kaylie and Tim (played in this time period by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan). Alan is an emerging software developer with his own business while Marie is seemingly adjusting to the new life of a stay at home mom who will more than have her hands full with two pre-teens with more than enough energy. After a conversation clearly making reference to the fact Alan may decorate his office in any way he'd like, but that he would attempt to stick with the more classic look Marie was going for in the rest of the house. Thus, we have the introduction of the extravagant and slightly grotesque mirror that Alan has chosen to hang in his office and which inadvertently begins to control him in a way his family doesn't suspect turning him into a man they don't even know. We don't know the details of what happened or what the background of this seemingly harmless decorative piece is, but as the film jumps back and forth between 2002 and the present day where we meet an engaged Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who is working at an upscale auction firm that is run by her fiance's family who able to acquire the same mirror that changed the fate of her family just as Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is being released from a mental institution. Not knowing the events that led to the seemingly two happy children we see in the flashback to the presently jaded, scarred and vengeful adults one or both have become. Kaylie talks of keeping a promise while Tim can only hope to stay far enough away from everything connected to the events that led to him being placed in the hospital. As fate would have it though, and thus the point of concocting a movie around this premise, both Kaylie and Tim end up back in the house where everything that was evil about the mirror came to fruition and where they hope to put an end to it once and for all. You can likely guess the details, motivations, reasoning even behind the story that comes to unfold in “Oculus,” but what makes it a better than average horror flick is the way in which Flanagan constructs his well-worn narrative.
To discuss why “Oculus” is indeed so engaging and a satisfying slow burn of a flick that pulls you in and phases you into the moment when you realize you're truly invested in what is going on with these characters without even realizing it while at the same time defending why I wasn't exactly as impressed with the overall impression the film left me with is to discuss the detractors that plague the interesting narrative tweaks and filmmaking techniques. First and foremost is the acting of Gillan who, despite her involvement in the popular British series and the fact she won a role in the next major Marvel Cinematic Universe, doesn't come off as all that credible or interesting in a role fleshed out with possibilities in the dialogue alone. The first time we meet Gillan's Kaylie she is walking through the doors of her work and her ponytail bobs back and forth until it is in full swing to the point of distraction. The tracking shot stays on the back of her head until she reaches her co-worker, assumed boss and who eventually turns out to be the aforementioned fiancé, Michael Dumont (James Lafferty), as they watch the infamous "Lasser Glass" be auctioned off to the highest bidder (which is in perfect condition despite its age and a small hairline fracture in the bottom right-hand corner). This overly-stylized shot is no fault of Gillan's and I would be ignorant to hold a grudge against her for this small choice that didn't even lie with her in the first place, but what it did was irk me that someone, somewhere within the production was trying a little bit too hard and it didn't help that the remainder of the film every time I saw Kaylie I couldn't buy into, that didn't seem to match the toughness nor the determination that neither Gillan's small frame or attitude could convincingly pull off. The ponytail bobs more throughout the film and Gillan's overall character look here is not flattering, but as we get to know her and her backstory better it is somewhat of a miracle she has come to function as normally as she has and has seemingly done so by keeping one, end-game objective squarely in her sights that will come to be completed once Tim has been released and is able to accompany her as he is the only one who truly remembers what happened in that house, with that mirror. Thwaites is fine, bringing nothing exceptional to the role, but at least embodying a tortured soul who has convinced himself nothing super-natural took place within a mirror, something that sounds so silly it makes the actual execution of this story all the more impressive.
So, we take out the somewhat awkward and amateur feeling performance of Gillan and cut the running time by the 15 or 20 minutes that really start to show that this feature has been expanded from an earlier short film by Flanagan and you really do have one of the more interesting horror flicks of the past few years. This is true though not because it is actually all that scary or all that cringe-inducing in terms of gore, but because of the psychology of the situation and how it makes you think about the circumstances these characters are placed within and forced to go through. Flanagan, who not only wrote and directed the film, also edited the project and in the editing he finds his real footing (as most filmmakers would attest to the fact the final film is truly made in the editing bay) by fusing the past and present stories of our sibling pair into one cohesive story. This isn't about how the past affects or influences the future, but more how the past is still driving the future and the points of this brother and sisters lives. Flanagan keeps the story confined to his principle characters, never bringing in the obligatory third party to explain the history of the core mystery or any of that nonsense, but instead the audience comes to feel as if they are in solitary confinement with Kaylie and Tim, neither of whom we can trust as both of their sanity could be checked and debated as to whether they were completely healthy or not. This ominous tone and ability to never confirm nor deny whether what we're seeing is real, an imaginary state or an alternate reality conjured up by the mirror is a mind game “Oculus” likes to play and what makes this film all the more engaging. Ultimately though, we realize there is one true reality the characters will have to face and when, once again, the circumstances the "Lasser Glass" has thrust upon them come to light we are left with an unnerving sense of what we are to perceive as truth and hallucination, putting us within the same mindset of Tim and Kaylie and allowing the movie to completely sell us on the idea that it doesn't matter that something as silly as a mirror is thought to be evil, but the fact of what it can perpetuate is an idea of the unimaginable, of something you can no longer go on living with and that whether you are committing a crime in one reality or becoming a hero in the other, the tough decisions have to be made and you have to become a hero in one and a murderer in the other. It is, in all reality, a heartbreaking situation that can be seen in a demented light, but more honestly in the earnestness of the intention and that such seemingly obvious evil and sickness was done with the intention of doing good is more terrifying than anything that simply makes you jump.