Usually in horror movies, the goal is simply to survive. Be smart and faster than your friends and you may just be the last man (or woman) standing when the credits roll.
But what happens next? How do you go on with your life after battling with a supernatural foe that has killed your loved ones and left you forever scarred?
That’s the jumping off point for Oculus. The film opens with Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental institution. He’s greeted in the parking lot by his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan).
The two were orphaned as children after a horrific night that left both their father (Rory Cochrane) and mother (Katee Sackhoff) murdered. Kaylie, who was raised in foster homes, believes that it was a cursed mirror that caused her parents to lose their sanity and to end up dead. Tim, who once believed that too, now believes that Kaylie’s recollection is a false memory the two of them created to cope with a horrible tragedy. Kaylie sets out to prove him wrong.
The majority of the film takes place inside their childhood home with flashbacks to the weeks leading up to the “incident.” Kaylie tracks down the haunted mirror and brings it back to the house, using video cameras and a variety of safeguards and precautions to document the evening and to protect her and her brother.
The film has a lot of fun toying with the idea of what is real and what isn’t. The mirror, Kaylie believes, has the ability to alter people’s perception. And Tim believes that Kaylie is delusional. So we are never entirely sure if what we are seeing is real or just a false memory or a delusion. It’s a fun dynamic and one that makes this film feel different from your typical horror film.
Of course, while a psychological element is always welcome, the key to a horror movie’s success is in its ability to make its audience jump out of their seats. Oculus isn’t jam-packed with scary moment (it’s more of a slow, psychological burn), but it does have a few genuine scary moments that worked quite well on the audience in the screening I attended. Also, the pale blue glowing eyes director Mike Flanagan gives to the spirits in this film are wonderfully creepy.
Karen Gillan is great as Kaylie. While Brenton Thwaites is positioned as the film’s true protagonist, it’s Gillan who carries the film. Similarly, Annalise Basso, who plays young Kaylie, is also great in the role. Katee Sackhoff does an excellent job portraying the mother’s slow descent into madness. And Rory Cochrane almost seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson in The Shining in playing their clearly-disturbed father.
The film is very well-written, too. Often the biggest problem in horror films involving a haunted house is finding a compelling reason for our heroes to remain in the house once supernatural things start happening. But our heroes in this film are kids. Their parents are the ones being affected by the haunted mirror, so they have no desire to leave. As kids, Kaylie and Tim are powerless to leave on their own. And adult Kaylie and Tim are back in the house by choice – Kaylie to scientifically prove what they experienced as children really happened and Tim to help his sister accept what he believes is the truth about the night of their parents’ deaths.
Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard do a great job going back and forth between the past and the present. Both storylines parallel and eventually intersect. But even as Flanagan and Howard play with our perception of what is really happening and what isn’t, you never feel lost or confused. It’s a well-crafted story, even though it’s one full of twists and turns.
I really love this emergence of microbudget horror films. For a while, the genre was overrun with bland big budget films that relied on special effects to evoke an audience reaction. But these smaller budget films scale things down, forcing the writers to be more creative, which leads to more satisfying and complex films.
So if you enjoy well-crafted horror films and are looking for something a little different from the standard fare, you will be quite happy with Oculus.