Director – Mike Flanagan
Cast – Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Kate Siegel, Miguel Sandoval
Release Year – 2014
Reviewed by John of the Dead
When I first learned of Oculus I was excited for the opportunity to see another supernatural flick on the big screen. I had fairly high hopes for this film given director Michael Flanagan’s previous flick, Absentia, showed much potential, especially in the writing department for its interesting and not-so-cliché story. As I usually TRY to do, I abstained from watching a trailer for Oculus or reading reviews, hoping to attain a more exciting experience by going into the film “blind”. Not knowing what to expect, Flanagan’s direction was good and I was pleased overall with this ambitiously creepy story, but in the end this story also made the film a mediocre one.
11 years ago Tim and Kaylie Russell suffered months of haunting torment that lead up to the most horrifying night of their lives – the night their parents were killed thanks to a supernatural force hiding within an antique mirror. Now fresh out of his incarceration from a mental facility, Tim is reunited with his sister Kaylie and looks forward to reclaiming his life, but he will have no such chance. As children they promised to kill the mirror and the evil behind it, and Kaylie is making that promise come true.
With films like Insidious and The Conjuring kicking so much supernatural ass on the big screen I had hopes that Oculus would do the same. Flangan’s story, co-written with first-time writer Jeff Howard, starts off very well and had me hooked from the start. The first act is so utterly creepy and in my opinion was unfortunately the best act in the film. Flicks are supposed to get better as the the runtime grows, right? We learn early on that fighting the mirror will not be smooth sailing, and not merely due to the mirror’s supernatural capabilities. After over a decade of rehabilitation Tim has been conditioned to forget what happened that night, at least the way Kaylie remembers it. They are now different people and she does not quite have her brother on board with her mission. Instead, he serves as the voice of reason and constantly exposes the logical fallacies in what Kaylie is trying to do – destroy the mirror while getting video proof of the supernatural events. Eventually, though, Tim is not only reminded of what happened to his family as a child, but learns that the mirror has not forgotten either. From then on out, the story seemlessly darts between the past and present and from both Tim and Kaylie’s perspectives, giving us what I referred to earlier as very ambitious writing. The constant jumps between past and present rely heavily on Tim and Kaytie as adults but also as children, along with their parents Marie and Alan. Marie’s character was definitely the most impressive of these characters as she underwent the most trauma as the loving wife who suffers the most torment at the hands of the mirror. The mirror plagues her husband Alan, using him to break her down and keep her children under an iron fist of control. While I loved this idea and appreciated Flanaga/Howard giving us something different, the execution of this tactic was not up to par and the story began to drag. I knew this was the case when I started to think to myself that the film was dragging, and the person next to me leaned over and said the same thing. Now these scenes did manage to keep my interest, but the quality of the story continued to degrade and the scares did little to save it. With the past and present both sharing equal screentime I felt that neither was able to develop quick enough, dragging the story (and the viewer’s patience) until the very end.
Initially the horror is very good and even gave me goosebumps at times. The second act does not contain as much of the goods and instead focuses on the conflict between the siblings and the flackbacks to the mirror’s effect on their family. The third act however brings on the horror in full force, but for multiple reasons it really was not very scary. Much of the horror is psychological, despite this being a supernatural flick, and when we do see supernatural horror it did not hit as hard as it could have. We do see ghosts, who are really victims of the mirror from days passed, but by the time things really kick into gear we have seen the ghosts so many times that they are just not scary anymore. Is this a bad thing? Not particularly, as I can appreciate a film heavy in scares in comparison to a borefest thath does not focus on what we come to see. What I must say though, is that the real root of Oculus’ scares is not the ghosts but the games it plays on the protagonists’ minds, as well as the viewer’s. With fiction and reality blurred our leads find themselves in daunting situations of life or death and only seconds to decide on what is real (aka what will kill them) and what is not. On top of all this, the film’s climax is heavy in shock factor and sure to leave the viewer in bewilderment over the horrific final sequence that will leave your gut wrenching.
Mike Flanagan’s direction is solid and he shows growth in comparison to Abstentia. His execution played a heavy role in the scary first act scenes that left me chills, and I also credit him with keeping my attention during the film’s dragging third act. He sets a fairly spooky atmosphere throughout the piece, but I did expect better when the story took us to the location of the Tim and Kaylie’s childhood home. The atmosphere was decent, but it was nowhere near Insidious’ atmosphere (I’d reference The Conjuring but the home is from a different era). We get good performances from our leads, Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, with both selling their roles but neither giving a stand-out performance worthy of additional praise. Katee Sackoff, however, was fantastic as Marie Russell, Tim and Kaytie’s childhood mother, as her role was the most daunting and she stood up to the task. I will also speak highly of Flanagan for relying mostly on practical effects for the film’s horror and gore, which always goes a long way in today’s age where CGI rules and ruins horror films. Much like Insidious, his ghosts were portrayed by live actors and came off very human, which in a way adds a more realistic feel to the horror even though I don’t find them as scary as others.
Overall, Oculus is a mixed bag of good and bad that makes for a hard film to recommend but at the same time not recommend. The story is so ambitious it makes for a marvel in this convoluted genre, but at the same time it may turn off some viewers who get antsy when the film drags for a solid 30 minutes. Flanagan’s direction is good and he provides some solid scares to keep you focused, but in the end this is a film that you yourself must decide is good, bad, or just mediocre. For me, it is a little of everything.