Mirror, mirror on the wall...
A brother and sister confront a family tragedy from a decade earlier that might have been the result of a supernatural phenomenon.That is the central premise of Oculus, a surprisingly effective horror film that contains some great ideas but is ultimately let down by a predictable ending. Karen Gillan (Doctor Who's Amy Pond) stars as Kaylie Russell, who is convinced that her father's madness eleven years earlier was the result of the supernatural influence of a possessed mirror. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, Tim Russell, who has just been released from a mental institution where he spent the previous decade after shooting their father in self defence.Kaylie has studied the macabre history of the 'Lasser Mirror' that once stood in their father's study and has discovered that all the previous owners had died in ghoulish circumstances. So in her role as an auctioneer, she arranges for the mirror to be bought and whilst in transit moves it to her parent's old house, which the children still own and stands empty. She enlists her brother's help in an elaborate plan to prove that the murders were the result of the mirror's influence and that their father was innocent.
Kaylie's plan then sets off the rest of the film, as it flashes backwards and forwards between the events currently happening in the house and those of eleven years earlier. Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck) play the parents, whilst Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan play the younger versions of Kaylie and Tim respectively. Aside from James Lafferty, who plays Kaylie's fiancé Michael, the film revolves around these six actors and they all deliver excellent performances, with the two child actors being particularly good as events become more frightening.
The film is Gillan's first big screen role since Doctor Who and she's impressive as the obsessive Kaylie, who has clearly spent eleven years formulating her complex plan. She delivers a decent American accent and holds the film together quite well, despite its fragmented narrative structure. The film opened in the States back in April, where it did reasonable business for its low budget and also played well on the festival circuit last year. All this should help Gillan build a career in the US and, since she's playing Nebula in this year's Guardians of the Galaxy, she might actually find success beyond Doctor Who.
Karen Gillan is very good in her first big film role and may well have a successful career ahead of her.
Aussie Brendan Thwaites is also very good in the role of the brother, delivering another decent American accent and providing the voice of reason during the early part of the film. Tim has spent a long time in therapy leaning to rationalise his father's actions and the last thing he needs after finally being released from a mental hospital is Kaylie and her crazy theories. He initially explains away much of what Kaylie considers evidence for the supernatural as just coincidences and false memories before even he has to admit strange things are happening. If the film has one major flaw, it's that it doesn't use the idea of a rational explanation for these events more often, partly because it plays the supernatural card almost from the beginning.
That's a shame, the film would have worked on more levels if the writers had kept open the possibility that Kaylie had been understandably traumatised by the events eleven years before and, unlike Tim, hadn't had the benefit of professional help. The idea that the events in the film could all have a rational and mundane explanation would have made the entire story more interesting thematically. After all both The Shining and The Orphanage could have rational explanations but they're still both terrifying to watch. That isn't to say that Oculus isn't a scary film, in fact it's got some genuinely frightening sequences, but it could have been presented in a way that was open to greater interpretation.
However the screenplay, by Jeff Howard and director Mike Flanagan, is full of clever ideas and they establish a series of ground rules through Kaylie's detailed plan which they then stick to. It's good to see a film do this as nothing ruins the suspension of disbelief as much as a film suddenly breaking its own internal logic. Oculus is actually based on a short film Oculus: Chapter3 - The Man with the Plan, although in that version it's Tim who is trying to prove that the mirror is possessed. Changing the main protagonist to a woman is an interesting twist and the brother and sister dynamic also works well but the essential setup is the same.
The film successfully creates a growing sense of paranoia and hysteria and through flashbacks and clever editing it manages to both trick and confuse the protagonists, as well as the audience, to great effect. Aside from this palpable feeling of increasing paranoia, the film also isn't afraid to be genuinely nasty at times, with a couple of scenes that will definitely have the audience squirming. These scenes aren't especially gory but they do rely on certain innate fears in all of us and thus work on a number of levels. The result is a rarity these days, a clever horror film that manages to be both unsettling and scary in equal measures and doesn't patronise its audience either.
Oculus is a rarity these days, a horror film that's both clever and scary, without being patronising.
The film is also well made with good production design and photography, considering its small budget, and effective direction from Flanagan. Sadly when you consider all the interesting ideas and setups within the film, it's a real shame that the ending is so predictable. It's fairly obvious from about the mid-way point how the story will play out but its open-ended nature does leave room for a sequel or even a franchise of films. Although whether that happens will depend on the box-office and any ancillary sales.
Had the film remained a little more contained in its structure and used an ending with greater originality it could have scored slightly higher but, as it is, Oculus remains a well-acted, cleverly written and attractively made film. The plot delivers a genuine sense of growing paranoia and dread and there are some effectively unpleasant scenes and a few really good scares. It's certainly worth a trip to the cinema because there's nothing more fun than screaming along with the audience when watching a horror film.
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