Starring: Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Brendon Thwaites (Maleficent), Katee Sackhoff (Riddick), Rory Cochrane (Argo)
Director: Mike Flanagan (Absentia)
Writers: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes
Release Date: 11 April (US), 13 June (UK)
It’s very hard to impress me with horror films, usually because after watching so many I now know all the tricks. They’re fairly simple to make, but extremely difficult to make well, and most don’t cut the mustard. Every year, dozens of horror movies are released but maybe only one or two actually work for me, and even then I often appreciate them for anything but the actual scares. So how does Oculus fare in this crowded market?
Despite containing some gore and slasher elements, Oculus is a psychological horror film at heart; it wants to mess with your mind as much as it wants to shock you with horrid imagery. The film does have a good set-up and a haunting ambiance about it, helping proceedings greatly. The story is told through two simultaneous narratives, one in the past and one in the present but both following the same characters. These stories often reflect and even cross between each other in odd ways, creating a very disconcerting atmosphere and keeping you in the characters’ mindset of “What the hell is going on?” The story has a classic feel to it, but brings modern technology into the mix which it then uses to further f*ck with the characters; it’s nice to see a horror film actually use phones, computers and cameras to its advantage rather than disregard them. The exposition at times can be a bit clunky, as evidenced by an extended scene where Kaylie (Karen Gillan) literally talks to the camera and explains the history of this haunted mirror. I know they’re trying to get away with it because she’s recording all this information for safety, but it’s not exactly a sound way to get across your back-story. The somewhat stitled dialogue penetrates other scenes as well, such as a scene where Kaylie wakes from a nightmare and her fiancé decides to say, “It’s OK. It’s just one of your night terrors”. Yeah, like we didn’t get that. Also, some of the foreshadowing is a little obvious, including one detail that I saw coming a mile away that actually caps off the story, and the film runs just a little too long for comfort.
I’ve not really watched Doctor Who in a long time so I can’t judge Karen Gillan as a whole but here she’s effective, mainly because Kaylie is thankfully not written as some shrieking scream queen. She’s a confident and determined person, but she’s still human enough to be freaked out by all the events going on around her. Brendon Thwaites fares better here as Tim than he did as Prince Plot Device in Maleficent (yes, I’m still not over that), though his early scenes where he’s constantly doing the whole “rational explanation” bit that I so hate in modern horror films can be somewhat grading. Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan play Kaylie and Tim as their younger selves, and they are surprisingly much more convincing than most child actors. I think the film ultimately works because of the brother/sister relationship between Kaylie and Tim, a dynamic not seen in enough films in general, as they both bond and bicker like real siblings in the midst of this terrifying situation. Katee Sackhoff is allowed to show a lot of range here as the pair’s mother, switching from confident mother to paranoid wreck to possessed monster and doing all very effectively. Rory Cochrane as the father comes off as a little too much at points but still provides a good menacing presence, whilst every other character in the movie is basically just a plot point. I know films often have incidental characters, but when you introduce a character’s fiancé and they end up being a footnote in the plot it’s a bit distracting.
As I said before, Oculus’ atmosphere is thick. Whilst the scares themselves aren’t often anything that special, it’s the build-up and aftermath of them that really sinks in. This is thanks to simple but very effective cinematography and editing, timed acutely to the action and blurring the borders between past, present, imagination and reality. The film’s production design isn’t anything special with exception of the haunted mirror at the centrepiece of it all. The look of this thing strikes the right balance, being different enough to be more than just any old mirror but not so overly designed that you’d question why no one else thinks this thing is evil.
Oculus isn’t a game changer in any way for the horror genre, but it has enough going for it to be worth your time. The acting and characters are solid enough, the general idea of the story is captivating and the atmosphere of the piece is genuinely disconcerting. I just wished it trusted the audience a bit more and didn’t feel the need to feed us clunky exposition and make all the symbolism so blindingly obvious.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10