Oculus is the new film from Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and despite the innocuous title and rather unspectacular marketing campaign, it’s actually a little bit more interesting than your standard horror-lite multiplex hit. It’s so unusual these days to find a horror movie that tries to do something different, and actually succeeds on some level that, although flawed, Oculus delivers in a way that is unexpected.
Kaylie (Karen Gillan, sporting a convincing American accent) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) have differing memories of a traumatic incident eleven years prior. Kaylie believes that a mirror with supernatural powers is responsible, an item that she has finally tracked down and purchased at auction, convinced that she can have revenge on it for killing her parents. Tim on the other hand has just been released from a mental institute, and years of psychologists and doctors have convinced him that these are the false memories of a troubled childhood and that there is a far more rational explanation as to what happened.
What I liked about the film was that for the first half hour or so you’re not sure which of the siblings is correct, and this is something that I feel could have played out for longer to create more tension; but inevitably there is something sinister at work, and as Kaylie is proved right her glee is only too apparent whilst Tim struggles to come to terms with what is going on around them. The films plays out both in the present and in flashback, where we gradually find out how events transpired in the past and how they are being recreated in the present. Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane are excellent as Kaylie and Tim’s parents in flashback whose marriage is gradually torn apart whilst the kids look on helpless.
Now this supernatural force likes to play tricks on its victims. It is also left almost completely unexplained which I definitely liked: we don’t know what the mirror is or why it is doing what it’s doing. This is what stopped the film getting bogged down in too much exposition and waffle. For once I also found that what we did get in terms of spookiness was fairly interesting, if not straight out of the Freddy Krueger school of haunting, so we as the audience are never exactly sure what is real and what is imagined, or what is a combination of the two. In one of the film’s cleverest scenes a conversation plays out between the two siblings, but when they watch it back on the CCTV footage the words are the same but their actions are completely different. It’s eerie and genuinely surprising; it’s just a shame it’s one of the only scenes that made me sit up and pay attention.
These subtle mind tricks play out through the movie, such as Kaylie accidentally eating a light bulb when she thinks it’s an apple, and other moments which may or may not be illusion. The mirror clearly likes to keep its victims on their toes and Kaylie may have overestimated her ability to take control it via technology and timing. Although the ambiguity pretty much goes out the door midway through, I think there is still an argument there that the entire thing is the product of an abusive and neglectful childhood and its repercussions – this may just be my reading into it, but I always tend to lean on the side of crazy humans as opposed to actual supernatural activity.
I think where the film lets us down, and in a fairly major way, is that it’s just not scary. Not even a bit. As a supernatural thriller it works fairly well, but as a horror film, not at all. Every scare is either signposted a mile off or from The Ring book of spooky scares, so unless you’re the kind of person to find The Conjuring scary then this is not likely to ruffle your feathers. In fact, my biggest complaint about Oculus is that it really seems to think that’s it’s better and scarier than it is – and yes, sure it’s better than 90% of straight to video horror fare, but it’s no Let the Right One In or Martyrs. Basically this is an above average film that does some interesting and original things with the genre, which for horror is saying something. But if you’re a diehard fan, don’t get your hopes up too much.
Oculus is released to UK cinemas on 13 June.