Oculus (2014)



When Oculus was released to theaters this past April I was intrigued. It had some decent festival buzz, and featured Karen Gillen in her biggest non-Amy Pond/'Doctor Who' role until then. It hung around theaters for a couple of weeks but ultimately ended its disappointing theatrical run before I had a chance to check it out. It passed from my consciousness as things do, until it reappeared on Netflix Instant last month. Again, I took notice, but once again it fell by the wayside of my thoughts. Then I started seeing it pop on some very well respected horror writers year end Top 10 lists (yes, the DreadWorld Top 10 will be coming - after I catch up on a bunch of shit I missed) and decided that I better see Oculus before I forget - again.

As children Kaylie and Tim Russells father Alan acquired an antique mirror, which he hung in his office. Almost immediately after his procurement, things start to turn bad n the house - really bad. When Kayle and Tim tell there mother about a strange woman in their fathers office she immediately becomes suspicious. Her suspicions lead to paranoia and then to violence. For his part, their father is no better. he eventually holds his wife captive in their bedroom and turns his aggressions on his children. Ina n act of desperation, after watching their father kill their mother, Tim shoots his father right between the eyes.

12 years later, Tim is set to be released from a juvenile facility. His sister is there to pick him up. She has become and art dealer and has recently come into possession of the very mirror that destroyed their family. Her interest in the mirror far exceeds its artistic importance though. She recruits her newly released, and very suspicious brother, to do the one thing they promised each other before he went away - to kill whatever evil resides in the mirror.

The first thing that hits you about Oculus when the credits role is how well the film balances its non-linear story. Very rarely does the film feel confusing or over complicated. The juxtaposition of the circumstances facing Kaylie and Tim in both timelines fit together like teeth on a zipper and the film is able to bounce between the timelines seamlessly.

Directed by Mike Flanagan and written by Flanagan, Jeff Seidman, and Jeff Howard, Oculus is based on Flanagans short of the same name. Thankfully, Oculus doesn't feel like a short film fluffed out to feature length. Flanagan is able to compose a time shifting narrative that feels like a comprehensive film rather than a bunch of ideas thrown together to pad out the running time of his short. In fact it fells like Flanagan could have gone a lot more places with the film had he wanted to, so much so that some of the subplots feel a bit underdeveloped.

There is a feeling very early in the modern storyline (and mirrored to a certain degree in the past story line) that Kaylie may be insane. Flanagan plays with it for the better part of the first act, but dismisses it fairly early in the second act. It's a shame because it seemed, with a little tweaking, that storyline could have been carried deeper into the film creating an added sense of tension between her and Tim. Once that is gone, the movie slips a bit into some predictable horror movie tropes. Not that tropes are a bad thing. I've said before they exist for a reason - because that's what audiences respond to. The film is still good, but feels a lot more familiar once it's established Kaylie isn't crazy.

Gillen, as older Karen, is able to transition from protective older sister to borderline paranoid with ease. Conversely, Aussie Brenton Thwaites does not handle his reverse character arc with such deftness. Although he holds his American accent a lot better than Gillen does during the scenes with heightened excitement and drama. But the real surprises come from how well the acting is form the kids playing the younger versions of Kaylie and Tim, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Granted they get to work with two veterans, Rory Cochran and Katee Sackhoff, who are at the top of their game, but they more than hold their own and even outshine their older counterparts at times.

Oculus is a lot better than any "haunted mirror" film has any right to be. Its dual timelines work well together and there are some great performances. There are some leaps in logic that you have to take to really buy into it, but if you do the film is certainly worth it. Oculus is the type of horror film that will sneak up on you. While not the best horror film of the year, it certainly deserves a place in the Top 10 discussion.

**** stars out of *****

Oculus is available to stream on Netflix Instant and on DVD/VOD everywhere. Check it out. As always, thanks for reading and "enjoy every sandwich."

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