Review: Oculus (2013)

Oculus (2013)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan (screenplay), Jeff Howard (screenplay)
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff

Oculus (not to be confused with the recent virtual reality headset) starts out as an incredibly strong entry in the contemporary ghost story genre. However, as polished as the surface appears to be, it’s too ambitiously heavy to be supported by the lack of foundation lying beneath, eventually shattering by the uninspired ending. But let’s start with what works, shall we?

There’s an inherent flaw in most modern ghost stories. They tend to follow the same formula: weird things happen, one person starts to suspect a supernatural element, but no one believes them, things escalate, others begin to believe but it’s too late, they manage to dispatch the ghost but with some sacrifice. Not only does the formula begin to get old, but there’s a built-in passivity to the characters, at least in the first half. And passiveness is a character killer. We want to watch characters do things, be proactive, confront their problems head on. Even in the good ghost stories, I always feel like I have to put up with the first part to get to the good stuff at the end. We, the audience, know why the plants are dying and what the whispering is, but we have to watch the characters blunder around ignorantly.

Oculus deftly avoids this pitfall through the cunning use of a non-sequential narrative. In fact, the movie almost serves as its own sequel. We cut back and forth between Kaylie and Tim as children, being terrorized by their parents (or what’s possessing them) and the two in their early twenties, attempting to destroy the evil which caused them so much pain. This structure allows us to begin with the meat of the film, the characters on the same page as the audience, and all the obligatory set up told through incremental flashbacks. I can’t overstate how refreshing it was to immediately jump to the trying to outsmart the ghost aspect of the film. I really liked the aspect of the film that Kaylie has studied the possessed item and is trying to simultaneously document and prove its abilities, as well as destroy it. I always like it when characters in horror movies go on the offensive. Watching her detail the various steps she’s taken to safeguard herself is quite entertaining.

Much of that fun was thanks to Karen Gillan, who gives an exciting, feisty performance as Kaylie, a woman determined to defeat the ghost that wreaked so much havoc on her family as a child. Brenton Thwaites, who plays her brother, is a bit less engaging, but he does have the more boring part, playing the skeptic who doesn’t trust his own senses or memories. Their child counterparts are both capable actors, and look remarkably like them, helping form the link between the past and present.

In fact, the pacing of the two stories was woven together incredibly well. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan, who also did his own editing, gets full marks for deftly editing in and out of past and present. This technique in films can often go horribly awry. Spend too much time with one story and it feels jarring to jump to the other. Don’t spend enough time and you lose interest in it. I was fully engaged in both past and present of this film and never felt like one was overstaying its welcome.

So where does the film fall apart? Well, the movie deals with themes of perception, memories vs. reality, and the immutability of evil. However, it never really has anything to say about any of that. As the film progresses, we, the audience, are brought into the characters’ shoes, as we can’t really tell what is real or not. Time begins folding in on itself, past and present merging, reality and perception blurring. We’re never really sure if what we’re seeing is occurring or just part of the evil’s machinations. This is all well-presented, the dread and tension building nicely, yet nothing ever really comes of it. At times the film seems to suggest that we should rely on our memories, at other times it says that our senses can’t be trusted at all. It just feels like the movie could have gone somewhere interesting but seems content just to utilize these ideas to justify some scares and stylish sequences.

Another problem is that a horror film is only as good as its villain. Even the worst installments of the Friday the 13thNightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween series were worth watching because they had great villains, with pasts and motivations. The villain in this film is an evil mirror. Yes, not since Harry Potter was almost entranced by The Mirror of Erised has a mirror been so dangerous. It’s actually a cool, spooky looking mirror with a colorful past spelled out in a fun bit of exposition. However, what is blatantly not mentioned is why the mirror is haunted. Why it kills those around it. I don’t want it all spelled out, but some hint that there is a story there would be nice. There’s obviously a central figure which we see emerge from the mirror a couple of times but given no hint to who she is or why she does what she does.

Another storytelling cliché is that even the most fantastic stories have to have rules. Okay, I’m going to buy that we have a supernatural killer mirror, but I want to know that it operates under some set of rules. I don’t need to know what they are, but it should feel like there are things it can do and things it can’t do. This is also very muddled in the film; the powers of the mirror seem to be whatever the needs of the scene are.

So, despite a strong beginning, full of hope and promise of a new horror classic, the film finally shudders to an unsatisfying ending that somehow manages to come out of nowhere yet is also horribly predictable. What we’re left with is a stylish, spooky tale with a couple of unique elements and a bit of a shoulder shrug ending. There’s certainly been worse, and it’s worth the watch, but I fear it will soon be forgotten.

- Cameron Harrison 3 out of 5

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