Movie Review – Oculus

Gore-free horror film delivers mild chills and spends a great deal of time trying to ratchet up the terror, only to flail about in incoherence late in the piece. Instead of a unique and memorable film experience, we’re left with yet another “haunted household item terrorizing a family” plot-line that goes nowhere fast, and never really surprises.


– Summary –

Director : Mike Flanagan
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff, James Lefferty, Miguel Sandoval.
Approx Running Time : 103 Minutes
Synopsis: A young woman and her brother return to the house they lived in a decade earlier to rid the world of a haunted mirror.
What we think : Gore-free horror film delivers mild chills and spends a great deal of time trying to ratchet up the terror, only to flail about in incoherence late in the piece. Instead of a unique and memorable film experience, we’re left with yet another “haunted household item terrorizing a family” plot-line that goes nowhere fast, and never really surprises.


Don’t look in the mirror. Or at this film.

It’s fair to say that the older I get, the more jaded and cynical I have become, and nothing nails this feeling like watching a modern horror film. Modern horror, be it the R-rated torture porn of the Saw franchise, or the PG dreck such as… well, everything else, really, has begun to blur into a tableau of mediocre, uneventful, non-creative trash just willing the money from the wallet at the hopeful thought of some blood, gore or hair-raising frights. For every good or great horror film there are about three dozen shitty ones, and these odds do not make a genre fan happy at all. Horror fans aren’t the most demanding viewers when it comes to these kinds of movies, and it’s sad fact that the genre has been looked upon by mainstream critics as a lower class of cinematic tripe, so I guess one could be forgiven for just throwing in the towel and accepting whatever rubbish Hollywood decided to dish up; not me – I expect more from my horror film than just random crash-bang jump-edits designed to elicit a momentary thrill of panic. I expect film-makers to be brave enough to try something new, to experiment a little within the bounds of the genre, to be daring. Oculus, in many ways, isn’t daring at all, but you get the sense that even though director Mike Flanagan was hard up against it with a largely incoherent script, he was at least trying to make this film as good as it could be.

Reflecting on their career choices....
Reflecting on their career choices….

Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Eleven years ago, computer developer Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) moves into a new house with his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff), 10-year-old son Tim (Garrett Ryan), and 13-year-old daughter Kaylie (Annalise Basso). Alan purchases an antique mirror to decorate his office. The mirror induces hallucinations in both adults; Marie is haunted by visions of her own body putrefying and decaying while she is still alive, while Alan is seduced by a ghostly woman named Marisol, who has mirrors in place of eyes. Eleven years later, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, having come to believe that there were no supernatural events involved in his parents’ deaths. Kaylie (Karen Gillan), meanwhile, has spent most of her young adulthood researching the history of the mirror, obsessively documenting the lives and deaths of everyone who’s ever owned it. Using her position as an employee of an auction house, Kaylie obtains access to the mirror and has it transported to the family home, where she places it in a room filled with surveillance cameras in an attempt to document its powers; using a “kill switch” — an anchor weighted to the ceiling and set to a timer — Kaylie intends to end the night with the mirror being destroyed, whether or not she herself survives.

I know he doesn't have red hair, but he's still my brother!
I know he doesn’t have red hair, but he’s still my brother!

Supernatural malevolence has been a staple of horror films since the genre’s genesis. The superior strength of the afterlife, especially the angry afterlife, is a concept not new to audiences, and Oculus trots out that old chestnut from frame one of its relatively taut 100 minutes. Instead of a supernatural video tape, or a supernatural box in the corner, or a supernatural painting of some fruit, we have a supernatural mirror, a portal if you will, to the evil and horror of “the other side” that our main characters believe is “alive” and actively haunting them. Little time is wasted on developing the characters, when all we want to see is this reflective surface cut loose with the scares, right? Yeah, right.

I can't remember the last time I strangled a girl in a negligee....
I can’t remember the last time I strangled a girl in a negligee….

Oculus is a film told across two time frames, the “present”, with Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as the older Kaylie and Tim, and the “past”, with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan playing younger iterations of those same characters. Initially, this premise of inter-cutting the two time periods is interesting and unique, and generates some nice momentum early in the film. However, the constant use of this storytelling method wears thin, and then wears out, by the time the confusing, incoherent conclusion winds its way into scream-festival mode. The tension of putting the younger versions of the characters in peril is mitigated by the fact that we know they live to grow up, so much of the film’s potency in “will they survive” is lost – that said, kids in jeopardy always makes my skin crawl, so even in the face of certain survival, I still had some momentary chills.

Complain about my cooking now, bitches!!
Complain about my cooking now, bitches!!

Oculus loses a lot of steam by way of a confusing set of internal rules and logic. The film never really elaborates on the mechanics of the mirror’s ghostly entity, the hows-n-wherefores of the story never seem to gel like they should in order to make Kaylie’s fightback legitimate. The cliche of a supernatural entity being able to traverse any resource humans have to combat the threat – electricity, telekinesis or making plants die in their pots, for example – is here once more, only this time it’s given no weight whatsoever because the film doesn’t go far enough to explain the limits (or lack thereof) of the entity’s scope. Naturally, our main characters have never seen a horror film before, because they tread onto the very thin ice of genre archetype idiocy and make some truly smack-the-forehead-stupid decisions during their escapade, and this too results in Oculus’s lack of resonance.

Darren's day continued to get worse when he realized the gun wasn't loaded.
Darren’s day continued to get worse when he realized the gun wasn’t loaded.

On the surface, Oculus seems fairly competent, at least in terms of production value and casting. Former Doctor Who starlet (and current co-star in Guardians Of The Galaxy) Karen Gillan plays Kaylie with a misguided strength of will (borne from what, I wonder?) and is solid in the role, while Brenton Thwaites looks all at sea as the psych-patient-slash-younger-brother in a role which could have been simply labeled “Character With Mouth Agog”. Easily the best actor in the film is young Annalise Basso, playing the young Kaylie, who delivers a performance far beyond her years as the “big sister” of the piece. Riddick star Katee Sackhoff (yes, I know she was in Battlestar Galactica, guys) is good as the Mother, and Rory Cochrane (who looks a lot like actor Jeffrey Wright, I must say) has a creepy vibe going on as the Father, leaving youngster Garrett Ryan to pick up the slack left over. Generally, the cast are all good in their roles, irrespective of the quality of those roles.

Man, this episode of Doctor Who is just a killer!
Man, this episode of Doctor Who is just a killer!

Yet, Oculus is mired in inadequacy. With the scrambled-egg approach to its own internal logic, and a confusing final act where the dual timeline tangents coalesce into one giant bad episode of Doctor Who (I’m sure Karen Gillan would have been used to this), Oculus misses the target of being both clever and scary; this I put down to the screenplay, which offers little explanation for events, characters and motivations, giving the audience nothing tangible to hang onto on the journey from opening to close. The film’s direction, at least in a visual sense, is largely compelling, with Mike Flanagan’s excellent handling of the look and feel of the piece doing minor miracle to make this film moderately interesting, so there’s that, but Flanagan is undone by the script’s doubling of story-lines in such a way as to make the end product so baffling in both outcome and motivation, that it just lost me utterly with twenty minutes to go. Oh, there are a few mild scares along the way, and the now standard horror trope of the ethereal ghostly specter of doom appears a few times to chill the blood, but it’s not enough, not often enough, to make this film anything more than merely competent.

Knock know, I guess.
Knock knock, I guess.

Oculus promises a lot and delivers in small doses, a silly premise painted over with great sound design and reasonably convincing lead performances (mostly). Yet for all its apparent cleverness, it fails to take into account the one thing it needs to be, to be a success – it needs to give us more than just stock characters and an unexplained supernatural entity. The fact that the film doesn’t give us characters to truly care about, or a motivation for the events that transpire (other than my pet hate, the “just because” syndrome, tsk tsk), leaves Oculus as just another mediocre attempt to modernize horror for the masses, with as little blood or gore as mandated by the PG13 rating, and with a plot so confusing (and so obviously designed for sequels) by the end credits it lost me utterly. If you are a die-hard completist of the horror genre, by all means give it a shot. Those less cynical and jaded than I might enjoy it. For those of us who care about wasting time on mediocrity, you can skip this one and not miss a lot.



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7 thoughts on “Movie Review – Oculus

    1. It's worth a look just for Karen Gillan in a starring film role, but little else. There's very few decent scares and the twisty plot at the end just annoyed me.

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