Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites in Oculus
Oculus is technically classified as a horror movie. But, I think it gets put into that classification on a technicality. Yes, it may have a horror movie feel to it. But I’m not completely sure it should be considered a horror movie. This movie doesn’t rely on cheap tricks to try and scare you to jump out of your seat. It doesn’t employ cheap tactics to make you scream. It doesn’t have the character searching for something with eerie music in the background when all of a sudden another character appears right behind them kind of moments. Oculus doesn’t care about scaring you. It cares about messing with your head. And boy, it certainly does it’s job.
The movie opens with Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) getting released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday. This happens eleven years after a tragic night where both of his parents died. Immediately upon his release, he is greeted by his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who waits all but two minutes to tell him that they have work to do. They have to kill the entity responsible for the death of their parents. The entity just happens to be a really old antique mirror referred to as the Lasser Glass.
For a horror movie, Oculus is actually pretty intelligent. Kaylie has this whole plan worked out. She has cameras rigged on the mirror and temperature gauges and backup switches and alarms to try and prove how terrible this mirror can be. I know what you’re thinking. Why not just destroy the mirror? Why not just take it up to a high surface and drop it? Yeah, they explain why that isn’t possible. I love how they deal with the issues in Kaylie’s plan. Her brother kind of plays the intelligent voice of reason, arguing her every point with legitimate concerns and accusations. She could be going crazy, trying to create a dark tragedy to paint her father in a better light. Her brother references different diseases, disorders, and even things that could just run in the family. But she is determined to prove this thing is the cause and she has the set up to do it.
The movie shifts from present day and the flashbacks to younger versions of these two characters, played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan. Of course its all set up with a family moving into a new house. But once you get past that whole genre cliche, it is all new ground to be covered. The parents, are played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff. It is really hard to explain but going back and forth between the present timeline, trying to kill this mirror; and the past, leading up to the tragic deaths of the two parents, is what makes this story unique. We have really unreliable characters, showing us what happened. But what is real and what are delusions? The film addresses the fact that these two characters could just be crazy, while also dealing with the paranormal aspect of this mirror. That mirror, by the way, is a huge dick.
Naturally, for me, the flashbacks were more interesting to me than the present. The present was pretty straightforward with the two characters staying in one room most of the time while the flashbacks really showed the deterioration of the the two parents. This was expertly done, mostly due to the great performances by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica fame. And everything leading up to the tragic event we already know happens is intense and edited together in a perfect way. Towards the end, the back and forth between the past and present becomes more frequent, which leaves us wondering how much of what we are seeing is actually real. That is why I liked this movie. It isn’t a horror movie to me. Sure, it has the feel and it has enough blood to definitely warrant a “R” rating; but this movie doesn’t want to scare you. It wants to pull you in and make you guess what is real and what isn’t. Is the mirror doing this or is this family just insane? These are questions the viewer is forced to answer, which is another great thing about this movie. It knows which questions it needs to answer and which ones to leave for the audience to determine.
The mind games this mirror plays on its characters are insane. But the key thing is that it isn’t just playing the tricks on these two siblings. We are getting played as well. It really is a cool experience watching this movie. People have different opinions and it is a movie that requires much discussion between yourself and whoever you see it with. I can’t remember the last horror movie to affect me like that. The Conjuring was a very effective horror movie in it’s own right. But it employed some of those cheap tricks to scare the viewers that I am not a huge fan of. It also had a religious aspect to it, which didn’t work 100% of the time. But Oculus, this one gets to you. It makes you want to talk about it because it makes you think.
The performances alone are reason enough to see this movie. And with the exception of The Conjuring and the always amazing Vera Farmiga, usually you don’t commend a horror movie for it’s acting performances because they are usually so unbearably over the top. But these characters aren’t stupid, they are actually very smart and it is refreshing to see that in a horror movie. Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane do amazing jobs showing the complete deterioration of their characters. Cochrane, once in his downward spiral, plays creepy to an amazing effect. Sackhoff can sell anything she does, because of her eyes. If she’s sad, we see it. If she’s pissed off, we see that too. Sci fi fans will probably ‘nerd-out” over having a Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica alum in the same movie. Karen Gillan, who is most known for her role as Amelia Pond on Doctor Who is just as fantastic in this as her on-screen mother. She brings a sort of no-nonsense attitude to Kaylie. And it makes sense because she has waited and plotted for years to take this mirror down. And Thwaites is really good when he needs to be as well. But real credit goes to Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso who play Karen and Brenton’s younger versions of the same characters. These child actors were insanely good in their roles.
Everything about this movie worked for me. It all came together because of fantastic direction. Not only was there good acting, but there was also great lighting, ominous music, and amazing editing to mesh the past and present together in a very effective way. This movie will give you an unsettling feeling while keeping you on the edge of your seat. While also messing with your head a lot. When I take horror movies into consideration for a graded score, it is hard for me to usually determine one because I care a lot about story and originality. The horror genre usually doesn’t offer up any originality in terms of their story. It is usually the same stuff over and over again, just told in different ways. But this is different. The meshing of the past and present offer a unique storytelling device that works completely. Like I said before, I wouldn’t classify this as a horror movie; I’d categorize it more as an extremely suspenseful psychological thriller. The basic story about the mirror may not be the most original, but the way its told is very original. I love that. Finally, an intelligent horror movie that actually makes you think. Why can’t there be more of these in existence?
Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell
Brenton Thwaites as Tim Russell
Katee Sackhoff as Marie Russell
Rory Cochrane as Alan Russell
Annalise Basso as Young Kaylie
Garrett Ryan as Young Tim
James Lafferty as Michael Dumont
Miguel Sandoval as Dr. Shawn Graham
WHAT I LIKED:
+: Superb performances all around. From past and present, young and old, all of the actors really brought depth to these roles.
+: I’m a sci-fi fan so seeing Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff in the same movie really made me happy.
+: That lightbulb scene….yikes!
+: The originality of how this story was told. The flashback usage for a storytelling device was greatly effective.
+: An intelligent horror movie. What?!!!??? Also, smart characters. Yeah, this isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill horror story.
+: Great behind-the-scenes work as well. Direction, lighting, music, and editing all combined together to make one pretty darn good movie.
+: Didn’t rely on cheap tactics or tricks to generate scares. This movie wanted to mess with your mind and make you think. In my case, it worked.
+: The ending may leave a bad taste in some viewers’ mouths because it sets itself up for a sequel, but I loved it.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
-: Some parts didn’t look so good, CGI wise. There were budget restraints, I’m sure. And you could tell. Not often, but there were a couple scenes.
-: The flashbacks were more interesting to me than the present day stuff. The present-day events weren’t bad, they just could have been more interesting.
-: This movie raises questions and takes a basic story in interesting directions. But they could have taken those new directions even further for some really interesting possibilities.