08th Jun2014

‘Oculus’ Review

by Jack Kirby

Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackoff, Rory Cochrane | Written by Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard | Directed by Mike Flanagan


Creepy kids have been a staple ingredient of horror films for a long time and recent examples of the genre such as the Insidious films, Dark Touch, Mama and The Quiet Ones show that our fear of little children doing strange things remains unabated. Oculus reverses this trope by having a pair of plucky siblings combat the forces of darkness embodied in part by their creepy parents.

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites play Kaylie and Tim Russell, who 11 years previously survived an ordeal which saw their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) go crazy, kill their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and attempt to kill them too. Tim shot their father and for his troubles, ended up spending the intervening years in psychiatric care. Upon his release, Kaylie recruits him in her mission to prove that the true antagonist of the film is actually an EVIL MIRROR, which had extended its malevolent influence over their father.

The film frequently flashes back and forth between the siblings’ childhood and the present day to create an increasingly uncertain sense of what is really happening. The EVIL MIRROR seems to create illusions in the minds of those in its presence, meaning that the protagonists and eventually the viewer begin to lose their sense of reality in the film.

Despite some cliché trappings – the use of video cameras, some generic-looking demonic ghost things, a creepy house in the middle of the night – Oculus introduces enough novel elements to keep it reasonably interesting. For example, it’s Tim who plays the role of the sceptic, which you might not expect. I was glad to see that the film didn’t demonise the mentally unwell in this regard. On the flip side, it’s outwardly-seeming sane Kaylie who displays obsessive, disturbed behaviour. This too, however, is matched by her assiduous and scientific approach to proving the mirror’s culpability. I particularly enjoyed this aspect of the film. Often in horror movies, you feel like shouting at the characters on screen to record their experiences or bring a witness or have someone know where they are and call at regular intervals. Kaylie does all these things in her efforts to prove her father’s innocence but you do wish she’d taken things further by having at least one other person who isn’t a recent detainee at a psychiatric hospital to help, or by conducting her experiment in the middle of the day, when things are generally less scary.

When the night does fall, however, things get very weird for our heroes. The constant flashbacks stop being something only the audience sees and become part of their experiences too. This creates a kind of trippy, unsettling atmosphere that director Mike Flanagan orchestrates to a well-timed crescendo. There are also numerous disturbing images and set pieces in the film, though I must admit whilst it was creepy and unsettling, I never found it actually frightening. This isn’t too problematic though, as it seems to me that creating an uncomfortable, disconcerting atmosphere is more than film’s goal than outright shocks and jumps.

The cast give good performances, with Gillen and Thwaite’s double act working well. They are likeable characters, which is more than can be said for many a horror film, meaning you’re sympathetic to their cause, rather than eagerly awaiting their gross dismemberment.

Whilst unlikely to set the world on fire, Oculus is an efficient, watchable and slightly offbeat feature, with some good ideas and strong execution. I don’t believe many of its time-bending, reality-warping tricks would stand up to too much scrutiny from the Cinematic Logic Police, but it’s definitely very enjoyable in the moment.

Oculus is released across the UK from Friday 13th June.

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