Oculus is actually scary because it goes about its methods differently than most films in the genre.
The tactics of “scaring” with jump-scares are a far too common cheap trick among horror films. Yes, there are a few times when Oculus uses them, but they feel out of place within the context of the film, as if they were placed there because the studio said “that’s what people are coming to see.” The majority of the scares in the film are much more deeply rooted psychological scares, and it works really well.
Oculus will mess with your mind.
Oculus is one story with two different points in the lives of two siblings. In the present, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) has tracked down a mirror from her past. With her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) now released from a psychiatric hospital after having been locked up for over 10 years (the timing of these two events is certainly eye-roll worthy, but overlookable), Kaylie wants to destroy the mirror. In the past, the story unfolds of the events that transpired that caused Tim to be locked away after having been convicted for murdering their parents.
We, the audience, don’t know exactly what happened in the past, and that’s important. According to Kaylie, the mirror possessed their father to kill their possesed mother, something that made Tim then kill their father. On the other hand, Tim believes that the mirror was simply a mirror and that there is a factual reason for every event happening as it did. He believes this because of research he did while locked up. Kaylie believes Tim has been brainwashed; Tim believes that Kaylie is just as crazy as he was before he got help.
The fact that the voice of reason is the one who has just been released from a psychiatric ward is extremely interesting and effective. A lot of the appeal of the film is the lack of reality. It’s hard to know who to believe. Is the mirror haunted? Is Kaylie now crazy? Is Tim still crazy?
Writer and director Mike Flanagan knows that traditional horror movie plots don’t make sense and uses that knowledge as a guide. If Kaylie truly believes that the mirror is haunted, that it possessed her mother and father and was the cause of her brother being locked up for the entirety of his teen years, it really doesn’t make sense that she’d want to be anywhere near it. With a good job and fiancé, she has no reason to let this mirror into her life again. But it makes sense that she would. She has dedicated her life to finding the mirror (there’s no real reason given to why it disappeared) because she has a deep need to prove to the world that her parents weren’t bad people and that her brother was wrongly convicted. This is a powerful, very identifiable feeling. Most of us obviously haven’t had to convince anyone about the hauntedness of a mirror, but having to convince people of something and not being able to do it is something very human.
Karen Gillan plays this extraordinarily well. Many will know the Scottish actress from Doctor Who, but with this and Guardians of the Galaxy later on this year the rest of the world will see that Karen Gillan has arrived. The script is a bit more plot driven than character driven so she isn’t given a ton of depth, but she is able to flesh out her almost two dimensional character with powerful believability. Her 13-ish (we’re not given an exact age) counterpart Annalise Basso was expertly cast. The two look very similar and share mannerisms. The same can be said of the Brenton Thwaites/Garrett Ryan duo, and Thwaites does a great job working with Gillan too.
The film is masterfully edited. At the beginning, the two stories are very different, but as they draw closer together, the editing makes it unclear as to which story is being shown, the present or the past. This works really well to capture the essence of not knowing what is real, what is in the minds of the two siblings, or what the mirror may or may not be doing.
Through its interesting psychological studies, questionable reality, and access to deep rooted human fear, Oculus is one of the best horror films to come out in recent years.
Rated: R (for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language)
Oculus opens in theaters on April 11, 2014.