Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Violence, some Disturbing Images and brief Language
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Jeff Howard
Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty, Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan
In 2011, Mike Flanagan made big waves on the horror circuit with a low-budget effort titled ABSENTIA. The film definitely had some problems found in silly effects, iffy acting, and a significantly flawed execution, but it did contain lots of spooky atmosphere. Flanagan returned to make even more waves at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with his latest scary story, OCULUS, which has hit theaters nationwide. Some of the problems found in his previous film still linger here (though significantly less bothersome), but Flanagan ups the ante all around with this freaky tale of a cursed mirror and a pact between two siblings to destroy it at all costs.
Something terrible happened to Tim and Kaylie Russell as children. Police didn’t believe their delusions about a cursed mirror and ghostly figures with glowing eyes, so Katie landed in foster care, Tim was shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, and their parents are dead. Years have passed and Tim is released from the hospital, believing it all to be in his head. His sister, Kaylie, is still convinced that the antique mirror is responsible for their screwed up childhood and has acquired it to prove so. Taking precautions and setting up surveillance equipment, the siblings return to their old house to destroy the evil object. It’s not as simple as just smashing the mirror though, because the glass has a way of manipulating those around it. It causes elaborate hallucinations that could easily drive a person crazy. As Kaylie’s plan to destroy the mirror begins to encounter many difficulties, the siblings relive the horror of that night along with questioning what is really around them and what is fabricated by the mirror.
OCULUS is a good old-fashioned horror film. It doesn’t rely on gratuitous sex, a high body count, or over-the-top gore (though there are some bloody moments). Flanagan focuses on telling a freaky story and creeping the viewer out. He does this very well. The storytelling technique blends the past and present together. Both the current events and the previous tragedy are told simultaneously, crashing into each other with increasing unease. There are clear flashbacks, but also other scenes where it’s hard to tell if the sibling is hallucinating/reliving their memories or if it’s just a cut and dry flashback. This approach was a nothing short of brilliant and it keeps the viewer engaged with the dual plot-threads. The script itself kept me wondering where the film was going to go next, but not due to boredom. Instead, I was wondering what was going to build on what I had already seen, suffice to say that the story itself didn’t disappoint.
The acting varies from both sets of cast members playing the siblings in different time periods. I actually found the younger child performers, of whom much of the film hinges on, to be more convincing than the seasoned ones. That’s not a huge complaint in regards to Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as the siblings in the present time period, but it took me a while to buy into them as these characters. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the latter of whom actually played Young Josh in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, steal the show. Besides Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents, there aren’t a whole lot of other actors involved that play a big part in the story. It’s mainly about the breaking of a once-happy family and the siblings trying to get revenge on the evil that tore them apart.
As far as the effects themselves go, there are some clear budget constraints. Most of the film does take place in the house (be it past or present), but ghostly specters of the mirror’s previous victims appear here and there. I dug the looks of some of them. Other times, things looked a tad corny. Seeing as Flanagan had 5 million (which is significantly higher than the 70 grand that he made ABSENTIA on), there’s not really an excuse for this. It’s not a film that relies heavily on effects, but they are employed throughout when necessary.
The film is professionally constructed in most ways, it looks great (save for some questionable effects work) and the storytelling is phenomenal (save for some so-so acting near the beginning). A big complaint I have to level at OCULUS involves the fact that I never once jumped out of my seat and I could call when certain pop-up scares were going to happen. It’s a creepy movie, but not necessarily a frightening one. It’s the kind of scary movie you might show to non-horror fans in order to terrify them, while you enjoy laughing at their screams and watching a pretty kick-ass story unfold in a mostly unconventional way. The ending is also a real doozy. I called it about a minute before it happened, but I was highly satisfied with how things turned out.
OCULUS does have some cracks in it, but is well worth looking into for those wanting a well-crafted horror film. The story rocks in the way it’s told. The more than capable child performers are arguably a huge part of what keeps things working as well as they do. I wasn’t necessarily out-and-out scared by OCULUS, but it did creep me out significantly. There was an eerie feeling that stuck as I walked to my car in the night, followed me as I drove home, and is currently hovering over me as I type this review. OCULUS winds up being well worth a watch and also might be one of the better horror films to come out this year! A solid horror film about a killer mirror? Who knew it could be done?