Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katie Sachoff, Rory Cochrane, and Annalise Basso
If there’s one thing the horror genre needs, it is the occasional shot in the arm from something that hits the screen and is organically original. Tough to do, when you consider it is a genre that just a few years ago, was full of announcement after announcement of both foreign and stateside remakes. These films that were either decently received (2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Ring) or run of the mill disasters (2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street and One Missed Call). If there is one thing I can give Mike Flanagan, the writer/director of Oculus, it’s that he tried to do something original. For the most part, he succeeds in creating a horror story that has the legs to extend itself into an entertaining set of films. However, there are bits and pieces of the film that didn’t feel it belonged inside this structure of a franchise that Flanagan is obviously trying to build, and at times, Oculus was just a little too silly for me.
The story starts us off in a small prologue that details the forces that have tortured our two main characters for eleven years and counting. Kaylie and Tim are two youngsters who move into a brand new home with a set of parents that are slowly but surely going crazy. Their dad secludes and locks himself in his office; their mom goes insane and tries to kill them. Dad kills her in a defenseless struggle, and Tim, ostracized from the real events surrounding the death, shoots Dad. Cut to eleven years later. Kaylie picks Tim up from the mental hospital he’s been spending his time in, and comes up with a plan to place cameras around their house and prove that the one who was crazy wasn’t him or their dad. But a 400 year old ghoul that lives inside their mirror.
The idea of a vengeful demon living in a mirror is one of those things that is all at once creepy and silly at the same time. But Flanagan does a great job in Oculus of placing the camera in all the correct places, and building that lurking tension which is absent from almost all modern horror films that do not have James Wan as their director. What Flanagan (and his co-writer Jeff Howard) doesn’t do, however, is even out Oculus’ story in a compelling sequence of events. While the film’s prologue sucked me right in and was an excellent way to start off the story, its ensuing events left me with a long-range empty feeling. It’s almost like Flanagan knew he had a great beginning and tried building Oculus’ narrative structure around it. While in contrast, it would seem more feasible to make the prologue an entire film, and the portion that takes place eleven years later be its sequel.
Nonetheless, the performances within Oculus are surprisingly good. Thwaites, playing the adult Tim, exudes a fiery charm that is impossible to dislike. Gillan, who is in charge of most the film’s at times frivolous exposition, does it all with gusto. It’s always good to have characters shiver in front of you and make you feel like you are shivering with them. You understand how this traumatic event has completely shattered their childhood, and want like hell for them to be able to save their adulthood.
Flanagan also sets up and delivers some decent scares, earning each and every one. What is interesting about Oculus is that outlining its concept (which was started with a 2006 short film by Flanagan) must have come with a tendency to turn it into a film of the found footage nature. But Flanagan, obviously seeing the potential that comes with narratives, thankfully avoided that creatively restrictive impulse.
All in all, I would say Oculus is a slight disappointment. While Flanagan has done a magnificent job of taking a fairly ridiculous concept and turning it into a deadly force (watch out dogs and vegetation), the film seems like two parts melded into one. However, as he did with Absentia, Flanagan shows flairs of brilliance here. The way he manifests insanity and portrays the otherworldly & downright creepy hallucinations, as well as uses his camera, is an enjoyable punch to the jaw for any horror fan. But its awkward structure and overall lack of dread left me a bit underwhelmed. Oculus will hold your interest, but I can almost guarantee that you won’t be gripping your seat at any point in its overlong 105 minute running time.