Sunday, August 10, 2014

Movie Review: Oculus

Directed by: Mike Flanagan.
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard based on a short screenplay by Flanagan & Jeff Seidman.
Starring: Karen Gillan (Kaylie Russell), Brenton Thwaites (Tim Russell), Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell), Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell), Annalise Basso (Young Kaylie), Garrett Ryan (Young Tim), James Lafferty (Michael Dumont), Miguel Sandoval (Dr. Shawn Graham).

I will fully admit that the premise of Oculus sounds ridiculous. This is a movie where a young man, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) gets released from a mental institution after 10 years because of trauma suffered as an 11 year old, and immediately goes to see his sister – who suffered through the same events, but didn’t have to go to an institute. She immediately tells him that she has found “it” – and that the next day, they’re going to get their revenge. “It” turns out to a supposedly haunted mirror – one that drove their parents crazy, and winded up with both of them dead. But Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has a plan – she knows what she needs to do to get rid of whatever is inside that mirror. But Tim is skeptical – he once believed that the mirror was haunted, but after so long inside, he has been convinced that what he remembered isn’t true – just one of his delusions, and now he’s cured. But what if they weren’t delusions after all? The movie flashes back and forth in time – to those months when Kaylie and Tim were children and their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) slowly go crazy, and the long night Kaylie and Tim try to get rid of whatever is inside that mirror – inside the same house the previous events took place in. Yes, the premise is ridiculous – even by horror movie standards. A haunted mirror? Really? Especially since nothing ever seems to come out of that mirror. Whatever presence there is in the mirror remains invisible – but what it can others see, hear and do is terrifying. Yet, as is so often the case in horror movies, almost any premise can be made to work if the execution is done right. And the execution in Oculus is done right.

What is strange about Oculus, from a horror movie stand point, is that the movie doesn’t rely on the usual tricks of other horror movies. The movie is almost completely lacking in blood and gore – the body count is remarkably low for a film in this genre. Nor does the movie really rely on typical “BOO” moments – you know the ones I mean, where something from outside the frame that is invisible to the audience, but should be visible to the characters, but somehow are – make us jump and scream involuntarily, but rather cheaply. Instead, the movie almost completely relies on building atmosphere and tension – and does so remarkably well. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that director Mike Flanagan has to do this in two different time periods simultaneously. Most horror movies aren’t as effective as building one story line into the kind of mounting terror achieved here – Oculus does it twice. 

The movie benefits from the performances. Sackhoff’s mounting paranoia is palpable, and where she ends up is truly disturbing. Cochrane’s performance is very silent and still – in many scenes, he seems lost inside his own head, staring into the mirror, which makes the fact that he makes you sense his growing insanity impressive. The two children who play Kaylie and Tim – Annalisse Basso and Garret Ryan – really do feel like two siblings, who grow increasingly terrified and know they have no one to count on except each other. In the modern scenes, Gillan is excellent at making you guess whether or not she’s insane, or she is actually correct. Thwaites isn’t as good as the skeptic – but then the skeptic never has the best role. The main character may just be the house itself – which like in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel – is a single location that feels completely different in the two time periods and yet undeniably the same.
Oculus does suffer a little from the fact that we know where the movie is going before it wants us to. The end of the movie is supposed to come as a shock to the audience, but I wasn’t the least bit shocked by it. In fact, it seems to me that it is the most obvious ending imaginable. And truth to be told, there really isn’t anything here that has been done before – and better. As a haunted house movie, it doesn’t rise to the level of last year’s The Conjuring or the previous year’s Insidious. But it’s still an effective little horror movie. One that worms its way under your skin, and stays there right up to its inevitable conclusion.

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