Oculus (2014) Review
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff & Rory Cochrane
What do you see when you look in the mirror? A physical reflection? Perhaps scars that you don’t want to see? Or, maybe ghosts that haunt a mirror and get their jollies by terrorizing families across the world over time? If you pick choice three, then you would be talking about Oculus; a film where the main villain, is in fact, a mirror. I know what you’re thinking: this type of film has been done before. What’s different about it? Well, quite a bit. The story follows Kaylie (played by Karen Gillan, of Doctor Who fame) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), a brother/sister tandem still dealing with the deaths of their parents some 12 years later. Their trauma has something to do with a large mirror that their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) has in his office in the family home and how it destroys not just their family, but does a real sadistic number on the mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff). Since their parents deaths, Tim has been away in a mental hospital receiving state sanctioned treatment, while Kaylie bounced in and out of foster homes until she was 18 and then struck out on her own. Fast forwarding to present day, Kaylie has a successful career in an auction firm, is engaged and seems to have the idyllic life. Jim meanwhile has come to terms with his trauma and is subsequently released from state care. The two reunite and all is well. It’s a great happily ever after, right? Not in a horror movie. It turns out that, while Jim is seemingly rehabilitated, Kaylie is laser focused on one thing and one thing only. Destroying the mirror that she believes played a part in their parents’ deaths. What follows is a psychological character study into how people deal with trauma. One side of the equation is the rational side, where everything can be explained, while the other side is more emotional and sees truths and realities where others may not. It’s a fascinating contrast that all revolves around the supernaturally malevolent looking-glass.
- The film is well acted – Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites really play well off of each other. Gillan, as Kaylie, is extremely believable as the driven sister who will do anything to avenge her parents. Thwaites, as Tim, lends a gravitas as he represents, in a way, the audience for the most of the film, as he is always questioning Kaylie’s motives and actions. When the action picks up and the past and present intertwine, both show fear in a way that really can resonate with the viewer.
- It’s light on jump scares, but heavy on build-up – This was my favorite part of the film. The jump scares were kept to a minimum. Yes, there were a couple, but because they were scarce the few that were there were effective. The film instead opts for the slow burn. It intercuts for the entire film, between the A-story of Kaylie and Tim trying to destroy the mirror as adults, and the B-story of finding out what happened to them as children that would drive them to where they are in the present. The stakes slowly rise to frightening heights. This is not just exclusive to the kids either. The parents, Alan and Marie, are shown to have a broken marriage. Is it the mirror that’s driving them apart, or were there seeds planted beforehand and the mirror simply exploited them? On the surface, the mirror is the culprit, but when you look at the subtext, you’re not quite sure all the way to the explosive climax.
- When it gets scary, it’s intense – The last half of the film is truly an intense ride. The mirror is actually a worthy monster for this film as it toys with the siblings and takes apparent glee, which can be seen through how Kaylie and Tim react to the mirror’s physical manifestations of its past victims. They are very scary, not because they are dead, but because they are confident. They have an air of arrogance about them that they can clearly back up and that in turn tells us that no matter how prepared Kaylie and Jim think they are, they have their work cut out for them when going up against this otherworldly mirror.
What doesn’t work:
- It can get too talky – There are points in the film where exposition seems to take over. One scene in particular, where Kaylie is explaining the history of the mirror, goes on for too long. Is it important to the story? Yes, it is. That said, you can get the same points across without losing your audience. Backstory is important, but you don’t have to go through every detail. Just give enough to show that this mirror is a legitimate threat to people. Then, let the mirror do the rest.
In all, the film was enjoyable. It’s more cerebral horror, that challenges you to think, process and come up with your own conclusions. Yes, the mirror is the supernatural villain. But one can ask, is the mirror solely to blame or does it simply play a part in exploiting deeper human, familial and/or psychological issues? For that answer, one must simply look in the mirror.