Movie Review: “Oculus” – Stay for the Story

Written by Angela October 16, 2014

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In its astounding capacity for resilience against the unspeakable terrors of the real world, the human mind oftentimes bends to great lengths, utterly warping its perception of reality before snapping completely. Such is the premise of Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” (2013), an unassuming horror film exploring the psychological impact of excruciating trauma upon a young person’s mind, and the unique set of problems which arise when that trauma has been committed by a supernatural evil.

Twenty-one year old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just been released from a ten year institutionalization. With the help of intensive therapy, he has at last been professionally deemed recovered from the troubles of his past, and ready to leave the grisly circumstances of his parent’s death behind as he steps out into the world to begin anew. While Tim was being taught to rationalize certain events with science and reason, his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) spent her time researching a darker explanation: a cursed mirror has permanently damaged her family’s life. Determined to take her revenge, Kaylie has requested that her reluctant brother spend one last night with her and the mirror to prove there is in fact more to it than meets the eye. As the night progresses, it becomes less and less clear who to believe—Tim and his years of logical elucidation, or Kaylie’s unorthodox convictions. Either way, it’s undeniable that when she and her brother look into the glass, something malevolent is looking back.

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There’s always more…

A great element of “Oculus” is its unconventional narrative and plot structure. Much of the siblings’ childhood unfolds simultaneously with the present story, creating an interesting puzzle for audiences to fit together. An additional layer of mystery is added when the subjective flashbacks contradict each other, creating an overarching instability that ultimately powers the film’s fear factor. While recent movies such as the well-known “Paranormal Activity” series have experimented with the use of a-linear time to tell a story throughout several chapters, “Oculus” is the first film I’ve seen in a while to come along and play with these aspects in one single sitting. The story is a twisted journey from start to finish, but it does make some stops along the way that don’t entirely support the its potential to be fully fresh and original.

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…than what meets the eye.

At some point in recent history, a glossy sheen established itself as the mainstay look of American horror, particularly in those films targeted towards a college-aged audience. Perhaps this is meant to match the hip, sleek look of techno gadgets and high-definition music videos, but the plain fact is that it just doesn’t work, at least not by the time it reached “Oculus.” Give me grit, give me shadows, give me anything but two unnaturally attractive twenty-something characters hooking cameras up to their Mac desktops and making calls on their (insert latest model here) iPhones as they ghost hunt. I appreciate the points “Oculus” makes towards the ramifications of familial mental illness and PTSD, which by all means are relevant problems today and should in fact be more widely discussed in the horror genre. But such moments of ingenuity are almost always cut short by a phone call or computer glitch, putting an abrupt end to what could have been an intensely dramatic or frightening scene.

Apparently “Oculus” was originally picked up for its potential to be yet another installment in the ever growing “home video horror” genre. Mike Flanagan refused to alter the original screenplay, but it still felt as though subliminal commercials promoting Apple movie-making technology had been forcibly inserted into the text. Pair this with some poorly done ghost imagery in the third act (blue skin and glowing eyes does not a hellish fiend make), and there are some unavoidable cracks to the surface of an otherwise solid film. On the whole, “Oculus” offers a unique take on storytelling and a compelling examination of the tricks our mind can play. It deserves better cinematography and visual effects, but, as the movie itself reminds us, appearances are not always everything.

My Rating: 6.5/10

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About Angela

Angela McInnes is an English major and up-and-coming horror film aficionado. To her, happiness is a bottle of rum and a creature-feature on a Saturday night.

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