Oculus Review

Posted: January 15, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Oculus-poster-2Written by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Initially, I had very little interest in Oculus. There was nothing glaringly bad about the film from the outside, I just had other things on my plate that I wanted to focus on. Beyond that, from what little marketing I saw, the film looked like another in a long line of haunted house movies, and I’ve had my fill of those recently. The film came to respectable box-office, seemingly indifferent reviews and I ended up forgetting about it. However as the months began to tick by, I started to hear more and more buzz about how Oculus was actually pretty good, and one of the horror gems of the year. I found myself interested, especially since I’ve been starved good horror movies this year and there doesn’t seem to be any intention to release The Babadook in Canada. Anyway, I’m happy to report that Oculus is indeed a pretty solid movie.

As the film opens, we meet Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who has been living in a mental institute since he was a little boy. Eleven years prior, the he and his family had an incident where the father seemingly went crazy, murdered his wife, and was shot and killed by young Tim. The children believed the whole affair to be the work of a haunted mirror in the family’s home, though years of therapy has purged such belief from Tim. After his release, he is greeted with open arms by his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who still very much believes the mirror is responsible and sets out to prove it by setting up cameras in their old home to catch the mirror’s supernatural powers on video. Tim no longer believes, and his reluctant to invite such ideas back into his life, but agrees to accompany his sister in the hopes of helping her mentally.

One of the things that sets Oculus apart from other recent films about a haunting is the parallel structure. The original haunting of the family is relegated to flashbacks while the bulk of the narrative is focused on Kaylie’s efforts to expose the mirror and Tim’s efforts to try and help his sister overcome, what he perceives to be, mental delusions. That way the film is able to have a lot of suspenseful scare moments while still exploring some new ideas. The concept of individuals attempting to use cameras to capture authentic proof of the supernatural isn’t exactly new, but Kaylie’s methods are pretty unique and the script is very devoted to exploring the ins and outs of her plan. This isn’t simply a case of recording the events as they occur, Kaylie also has a series of timers, hourly check-up calls, food and water rations, multiple cameras running on different power sources, and a kill switch in case things go wrong. The details are pretty neat, and it makes it all the more satisfying when things start to go wrong.

Another thing I liked about Oculus is how it did not take the found footage route. Given how much of the story is predicated on Kaylie filming events in their home, it isn’t hard to imagine a studio trying to retool the script to completely accommodate the found footage style. Thankfully this isn’t the case, and it allows director Mike Flanagan to play with the flashback structure, as well as do some neat things visually. Flanagan gives the film a tangibly creepy atmosphere and the camera work is generally pretty strong. I wouldn’t call this a directorial tour de force or anything, but the man seems to have a grasp on what he’s doing. I was also impressed by Karen Gillan, who does a good job creating a determined and driven character and commands the lead pretty well. The rest of the cast is a lot less interesting. Most of the actors seem C-list and co-star Brenton Thwaites seems to just make the same empty expression through the whole film.

Oculus is a pretty suspenseful and effective horror film for most of its runtime, and actually preys on psychological fear a lot better than I would have expected. However does have a few of those clichéd moments that I’m not crazy about. There are some disappointing jump scares and every so often the film moves away from the psychological and toward more generic horror imagery like creepy looking ghost girls and possessions. These are the kind of tropes I’m sick of and to see a film that was avoiding them eventually indulge is disappointing. This is most pronounced in the film’s third act, where it essentially boils down to an extended chase scene between the possessed, some ghosts, and our leads. Granted, this material isn’t really bad so much as it is standard, and I will also give the film credit for building to a pretty memorable ending.

Oculus isn’t a great movie, and when really looked at, it isn’t all that different from contemporary ghost/haunting movies like Insidious, The Conjuring, or Sinister. However I do think the film’s emphasize on the psychological, the flashback structure, and Karen Gillian do serve to give the film its own identity. It’s a movie with some severe missteps, but even so it does work pretty well on the whole and is certainly one of the better horror films to come from a major studio in 2014. If you’re looking for a spooky film to fill an evening, this should do nicely.

B-

Comments
  1. Dan O. says:

    Was more interested by where it was going, much rather than actually scared. But it was still worth the watch. Good review Dan.

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