Reviewed by Jordan Smith.
Although I say that this will be a spoiler free review, and it will be, it’s not exactly going to be difficult to keep it that way, because Oculus is a bog-standard horror film. And when I say bog-standard, that implies that the film is… well, bog-standard. You can pretty much guess everything that’s going to happen anyway. Make no mistake though – Oculus is a very well made horror film. It’s simply that it follows the conventions very much to the letter. Apart from the split narrative which is done extremely well as it is told in parallel throughout the film.
Oculus is Mike Flanagan’s first big feature film; he co-wrote it with Jeff Howard and directed it himself. It stars Karen Gillan and Annalise Basso as Kaylie Russell (the older and younger respectively), Brenton Thwaites and Garrett Ryan as Tim Russell (same again) and Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff as Alan and Marie Russell respectively.
Kaylie has been tracking down and researching a mysterious mirror for eleven years, ever since the death of her parents when she was younger. Everyone else believes that it was Tim’s fault for the murder of their parents and, as Tim is released from a mental institution on his twenty-first birthday, Kaylie has hopes of proving with her brother that their parent’s deaths were really caused by the supernatural mirror. Nice, simple premise and very interesting story.
What unfolds over the next (quite nicely paced) hour and a half or so is a fairly standard horror affair. All the events in the present day storyline happen in one night and the scares are where you’d expect them to be. Of note is that there aren’t many cheap jump scares used which is always a positive in my books. The film relies on the creepiness of the shots and the tense atmosphere that is built up to send shivers down its audience’s spines. And for the most part the film manages this quite nicely. There are quite a few creepy moments that I really liked. The make up in this film is fantastic and the “monsters” in this film are very well designed in their simplicity. They’re by far the creepiest things within the film though I do like its interpretation of ghosts as well.
The four lead actors in the film are all pretty fantastic. Karen Gillan plays, yet again, a very different character to who we’ve seen her portray before. Kaylie is driven to clearing her family name perhaps to the point of being obsessive. She’s a very strong lead character and very clever as well, though not clever enough; as it always is with these films. It took some getting used to her accent; I didn’t buy it because I know it’s not her actual accent but apparently it’s a very decent accent. I haven’t seen any complaints about it elsewhere. It’ll just take me some time getting used to her not playing Scottish characters. Annalise Basso is a fantastic young actress and we could see her go far is she continues with acting. The same goes for Garrett Ryan as the younger Tim but the standout performance for me was from Brenton Thwaites. Tim at age twenty-one is a very interesting character because I found all the information that he ends up spewing out about his psychiatric care very interesting. He tries to help out his sister but she doesn’t listen which is unfortunate really because everything he was saying made perfect logical and moral sense. But this is a horror film so, you know.
The cinematography, directing and editing are all extremely well done and you can see this more than ever in this film because of the great sequences where the two timelines overlap. The older characters see their younger selves as they remember past events and vice versa; except the younger versions of themselves aren’t seeing future events. That’d be interesting though.
There aren’t too many scares and the film relies more on its interesting story about ‘the mirror that can make you see things’ than the gore or the jump scares and I think that is quite a good thing. There are some fantastic mind games throughout the film because you never know what you are seeing or hearing is what is actually happening because of the mirror’s powers so it keeps you guessing. A fun little horror film and another fine big screen film under Karen Gillan’s belt. Now for the big one this Summer; Guardian’s of the Galaxy.