Oculus (2013) / Horror
MPAA Rated: R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Kate Siegel, Miguel Sandoval
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard (based on the short screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Seidman for the 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan)
Review published April 12, 2014
Tim Russell (Thwaites, The Signal) is a 21-year-old who has just been released from a mental institution for killing his own father (Cochrane, Parkland), who in turn had killed Tim's mother (Sackhoff, Riddick), about a decade before. Tim's greeted in release by his older sister Kaylie (Gillan, Not Another Happy Ending), who aims to fulfill a promise they made to put an end to what they feel is the real killer of their parents, an antique mirror, dubbed the "Lasser Glass", they had in their possession (or were they in its possession?) just prior to the fatal events. Thinking it all must have been his delusion, he wants to put it all behind him, but Kaylie has been obsessed with getting revenge. Armed with knowledge of the mirror's rich history of tragedy since its creation centuries before, and coercing a scenario in which they have the mirror in their possession once more for a few days -- she's out to destroy it, and exonerate Tim and their father, once and for all.
Oculus is reminiscent of a long episode of "Tales from the Crypt" or some other classic horror anthology in which most of the events spin off of one eerie plot device, usually a curse. It is creepy, though not exactly scary in the modern sense, but it does maintain a good degree of interest throughout thanks to the well-developed setup that explains the characters, their motivations, and the means to which they determine to do something about their predicament head-on so that it won't happen again.
In most horror movies, the protagonists stick around in the house for reasons that defy rational explanation, but as Kaylie is the one who means to draw out the malevolent force first-hand, the usual contrivances disappear and we're able to enjoy the ride without as high a logic overhead. They stay so permanently to their location that Oculus does sometimes feel like it had been adapted from a play, though the house is at least large enough to support a good deal of room changes so as not feel too claustrophobic.
Much of the film plays out in flashback mode, as the characters in the present recall things that have happened in their past. The parallel storylines add a certain level of symmetry to how things play out (some might say the events of the present "mirror' those of the past), but the film does occasionally get a bit murky, perhaps deliberately, as we sometimes question whether we're watching a flashback or merely a hallucination (aka, "reflection") caused by the exposure to the mirror. As the "evilness" of the mirror is hardly in doubt early on, it begins to feel a bit padded out, and what might have been a tight 85 minute film ends up a watered-down 105-minute experience that does become a bit redundant throughout the climax. I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that the film ends up feeling stretched out, as Oculus had originally been made by Flanagan in 2006 as a 32-minute short.
Oculus isn't going to win any awards for originality, as this is a rather old-fashioned story that is only updated through its use of cell phones, digital cameras, and other modern technology that prove to be rather useless anyway once events roll into motion. The film also doesn't get bogged down in the mechanics of how or why the mirror can do what it does, though one suspects, should this film prove a success, that future entries might hint at an origin story beyond just the mention of its creation. Despite its modest premise, and an ending that may deflate some viewers hoping for something different, Oculus contains enough clever moments at regular intervals to emerge as one of the better horror releases in recent years.
©2014 Vince Leo