Oculus – Review
I’m as guilty as anyone for decrying the decay of the horror genre into nothing more than a handful of micro-budget (typically $1-15m) productions each year alongside what seem to be an endless stream of increasingly poor found-footage offerings; that said, it’s still nice every now and again to see one of those token micro-budget efforts attempt to do something different. Last year for example saw the release of The Purge, which – while rapidly resorting to trite cliché even in its shock value – did at least win points for dedicating the first third of its runtime to setting up once of the best concepts the genre has seen in years. We’ll know in about six weeks time whether or not The Purge: Anarchy can build on that potential, but until then at least the title of best concept for a horror movie in 2014 goes – hands down – to Oculus for taking one of the most trite conventions in horror and skilfully using it to its advantage.
When troubled young adult Tim is released from psychiatric care, his elder sister Kaylie drags him along to their childhood home to take part in an experiment. With a number of security methods in place, Kaylie unveils an antique mirror she claims has brought nothing but death and chaos to its owners for more than a century – with their own parents taken in by it as well. Now, on video for the world to see, Kaylie concocts a plan to force the mirror to unveil the evil locked within it; but Tim isn’t entirely convinced that the events of their childhood ever actually took place.
In what ranks alongside the narrative highlight of the recent Edge Of Tomorrow, Oculus whips out its greatest trick early on by unspooling the events that befell the parents alongside the events that befall their adult children in parallel. It’s highly effective, and one of the strengths of director Mike Flanagan’s script is that he successfully manages to keep the adult Tim and Kaylie interacting and referring to past events without truly giving the game away too early. Sure, there’s a point in the third act in which past events become gnawingly predictable, but the goodwill earnt by sticking to their very novel (and almost Rube Goldbergesque) concept is strong enough to see the characters through to a decently satisfying (if hackneyed) conclusion.
Gillan has genuine screen presence here, managing to play strung out and determined but drawing it all in before the character can become merely an obsessive irritant. It’s startling how natural she seems on the big screen, with even her mastery of accent ensuring that if you’d never seen an episode of Doctor Who, you’d genuinely believe she was another up and coming American starlet. Brenton Thwaites fares less well as the adult Tim, his character lumbered with the token “audience POV” role that his lack of real ability ensures he never manages to overcome. Fanboy favourite Katee Sackhoff is also fairly wasted in a pretty thankless role that casts her aside far too quickly and relegates all of the best “past” moments to Empire Records-alum Rory Cochrane, whose rather shoddy resume to date ensures this is the finest work of his career.
Flanagan’s knowing direction proves an asset to Oculus, with the unacknowledged dismissal of resorting to found-footage early on proving an indicator of his ability to work in a refreshingly conventional manner. which elevates the suspense a notch higher than a knocked-together found footage job ever could. Where Oculus stumbles however is – as always with contemporary mainstream horror – in the third act resolution. With “past” events signposted so heavily, “present” events disappoint by simply resorting to the obvious and predictable. It’s a shame, and a waste of great potential. With possibly the most effectively constructed horror concept of the year so far, an uninvestable male lead and shoddy resolution hold Oculus back from truly managing to create something unique.
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Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff