MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Supernatural Psychological Horror/ Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan Ewald, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel, Justin Gordon, Katie Parker, Bob Gebert, Courtney Bell/Runtime: 103 minutes
Mirror, mirror that graces my hall…is there a paranormal force in you that wants to kill us all?…Sorry about that dear reader I just had to check especially after watching the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today, 2014’s Oculus. Indeed this slice of cinema is one that definitely prescribes to the notion that sometimes a slice of horror cinema works a lot more effectively when it gets under your skin rather than bludgeons you on the head with a seemingly never-ending set of cheap and watered down jump scares (I’m looking at you Ouija). Suffice it to say therefore that it might not be for everyone, but if you have the patience and/or tolerance for this kind of horror cinema then Oculus with its riveting narrative and wonderful work on both sides of the camera will definitely be one trip through a nightmare that you won’t soon forget.
The plot is as follows: in the long gone year 2002, we see a family known as the Russell’s are in the final stages of moving into their new and fairly upscale abode. An achievement that has seen the clan purchase some fairly nice decorations in order to make the occasion with one of the more noteworthy pieces being a fairly tall and fairly old wall mirror that soon finds its way to being placed in the family patriarch’s home office. Yet we soon see that the family’s happiness is tragically short-lived as dear ol’ Dad starts spending more and more time in his office talking to a mystery woman who no one ever sees enter or leave the house and also starts acting quite withdrawn and reclusive. Yet for how much concern the family’s matriarch shows in regards to her husband’s behavior, it isn’t long before she starts acting rather odd herself. As a result, the seeds of tragedy are planted and it isn’t long before a horrific predicament befalls the family leaving the kids alive albeit highly scarred from their experiences that I shan’t spoil here. What I can tell you is that in the aftermath, the family’s 10-year old son Tim had to be sent to a juvenile mental ward where, when our slice of cinema begins proper, he is being discharged due to being close to turning 21. Yet for all the fear he has about going back out in the world, we see his kind and devoted therapist believes in him enough that he feels Tim is really able to see past any delusions he may have possessed about the tragedy and look at it from a rational point of view. Yet when Tim reunites with his older sister Kaylie, we see that Kaylie still resolutely believes what Tim has since rejected to the point that Kaylie has been working at an auction house just so she is able to reacquire the blasted mirror that she believes was the cause of all the tragedy that their family has fallen prey to. A belief she also is willing to back up courtesy of research that seems to show a fairly lengthy saga of horrific death and calamity that seems to follows this mirror around like a plague. Thus having been bequeathed the home where the tragedy that tore their lives apart, we see that the persistent Kaylie coerces/guilt trips the highly skeptical Tim into taking part in an extremely well-thought out quasi-sorta experiment she has established with the goal in mind of capturing footage of the malicious supernatural abilities possessed by the mirror and in the process also clearing the family name of the accusations that have dogged it since that fateful day before then proceeding to completely and utterly annihilate the mirror so it’s reign of terror can finally come to an end. A plan that we soon see includes the installation of numerous security cameras, back-up lighting that runs on batteries should the power go out, a scheduled series of calls from Kaylie’s loving and supportive if not more than just a smidge concerned fiancé, a collection of plants since the mirror allegedly will cause them to wither up and die, and even a canine companion since dogs are known for being driven nuts by the mirror only to then inexplicably vanish. Yet right when it appears that Tim’s fairly high degree of uncertainty in regards to everything his sister seems to be telling him is about to be validated, weird things start happening that soon point to a pair of horrifying conclusions. Namely that not only is there something malevolent and malicious still residing in the mirror, but that it is just as prepared not to go down for the count without putting up some kind of fight first. Thus what started out as a simple investigation and subsequent demolition is now about to become a horrifying mortal combat between a pair of people and an evil force that promises no more and no less than the chance to stay alive for the survivor.
Now right off the bat it should be noted that it is a fairly simple feat for a slice of horror cinema to just bludgeon an audience with an overabundance of jump scares, but what really sets a film apart is when it actually tries to either unnerve or get under a movie goer’s skin and stay there and just continue to chill them to the bone. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema is most assuredly an example of the latter. This is because as the mirror starts playing a series of mean and twisted tricks on the minds of our pair of protagonists, the movie goer winds up being tricked as well to the point that film helmer Mike Flanagan is able to twist how delicate the aspects of memory and consciousness are and utilize them as tools to bring out fear better than a lot of other shocks of a brutal nature could have hoped to achieve. Yet perhaps the first hint that this slice of cinema is aiming to be be distinct from other slices of horror cinema is when we see the grown up Tim try to brush aside his sister’s insistence that the tragedy they endured had supernatural ties with the psychology-rooted idea that she created these fake memories with the aid of equally as fake associations. Yet even after Tim explains how he remembers what happened to Kaylie, you still find yourself asking if even Tim remembers things correctly. Indeed as this slice of cinema goes along, it is not exactly clear if either perspective holds more weight than the other. More than that, this slice of cinema continues to just ratchet up the tension and atmosphere to the point that, yes you might be able to figure out where this film is headed, but you delightedly won’t be able to determine how it plans to get there. Yet despite being a modern day horror film due to the presence of cell phones, laptops, and video cameras we see that this film is able to toy with that due to how it even throws into question what the technological devices at their disposal pick up. Of course, the fact that this film moves ahead on a pair of distinct yet connected arcs doesn’t help clear things up. Indeed as our clearly confused pair of guides through this madness try to both make their way through memories of the past and also make a move before the mirror can respond, we see that events in the past and in the present continue to clump together thus resulting in the film causing you, the viewer to consistently inquiry as to what actually is going on with one truly visceral moment that made even me cringe feeling like a delightful throwback to a similar hallucination in the horror classic Poltergeist from 1982. Suffice it to say then that, for all the chills that might be a tad bit familiar, this slice of cinema is able to make brilliant use of this power it wields and as a result is able to give us a volume of terror that is both misleadingly simplistic whilst also grounded in a vast and fundamental anxiety even as the things that are the scariest about it are things that scare all of us. Indeed by watching as our dynamic duo tumble headfirst down the rabbit hole created by this malevolent item’s dastardly machinations, each and every one of us also winds up becoming a victim to it as well and this slice of cinema is all the better for it.
Now through its reliance on scares of both a supernatural and psychological variety, I can safely that this slice of cinema has more than its fair share of legitimately visceral and unnerving moments that will test even the most hardened veteran of the horror genre to not have the hair on the back of their neck stand straight up. Yet what really ultimately makes the scares land as well as they do is the genuinely good performances from the collection of main cast members at the heart of this narrative. This most assuredly starts with the performance given in this by Katee Sackhoff as the family matriarch Marie and she is downright terrifying and disturbing in the best ways. Indeed as she slowly but surely loses her own tenuous grip on sanity and reality, we see that Sackhoff chooses to have Marie do away with her humanity entirely and instead give us a woman who acts more like a downright creepy feral animal than anything. I mean I’m not gonna lie to you dear reader: I rarely get spooked while watching slices of horror cinema, but whenever Sackhoff appears in this film I got some serious chills down my spine. Yet even with that phenomenal work by Sackhoff in mind, I still am of the firm belief that the pair of child actors in this consisting of Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, as young Kaylie and Tim respectively, were the best performers in this slice of cinema. This is because out of every single performer in this cast, I feel that watching this dynamic duo attempt to make their way through this slice of cinema’s reflective and labyrinthesque nightmare in a way that actually felt real rather than acted actually made me respect the work these two young thespians provided this slice of cinema with. Indeed far too often I have seen countless adult thespians fail quite spectacularly at trying to convince an audience that they are genuinely terrified by what is going on in the slice of cinema that they are performing in. However not only does this dynamic duo pull it off with skill, but they also do it in a way that is refreshingly realistic and with a degree of rarely seen innocence as well. Now that’s not to say the rest of the cast is terrible. Far from it actually. Indeed in the role of the grown-up Kaylie, we see that Karen Gillan does a wonderful job at giving us a young woman who is so warped by her childhood trauma that she is willing to do whatever it takes to tackle this trauma head-on. Yet whilst this may explain why in the world this young woman would engage in this battle of wills with an, at least on the surface, ordinary wall mirror it also manages to reveal that this is also a young woman who will chillingly not let go of the past until her vengeance is complete no matter what the cost. Suffice it to say Gillan nails all of the facets of this character perfectly and gives one heck of a performance. On the other hand, in the role of the older Tim, I felt that Brenton Thwaites does do an admirable job of trying to convey not only exasperation, but also a degree of questioning his sister and her motives, but sadly the character really does as the film goes on become more and more of a part of the setting rather than a three dimensional character in any meaningful way. Now with all of this in mind, we see that the only main cast member left worth touching on is Rory Cochrane as the family patriarch and yes I know to some extent he seems almost robotic not only in how he acts, but also in his dialogue delivery. However I would like to argue that this is not a detriment to Cochrane’s acting talent since the man has given us some truly iconic characters in his career (Slaterson in Dazed and Confused to name one) and rather because that is just plain and simply the nature of the character he is portraying.
All in all I won’t lie to you dear reader: the wrinkle that this slice of cinema chooses to deliver its fairly riveting and chilling yarn through operating within a pair of distinct yet intricately connected timelines does result in this being something wonderfully distinct for movie goers….that is is you are willing to wait on this slice of cinema’s helmer, cast, and crew to leave you chilled to the bone. Indeed this might not be nowhere the test of your patience that something like the DMV routinely is, but those of you with a shorter attention span might find this a bit harder to sit through than others among you. As I am someone who loves horror cinema, has a fairly dependable spine (thanks to a terrific chiropractor and massage therapist on speed dial), and the willingness to give this slice of cinema the time it needed, I gave this film a chance to do its stuff and I’m glad I did. Sure this slice of cinema might have some moments here and there that struggle to properly scare, but otherwise the work done both behind and in front of the camera is relatively solid thus giving audiences a slice of cinema that is fairly chilling. Sure I might not think it is as great as a lot of reviewers who saw it when it premiered in Toronto back in 2013, but at the same time it is a fairly wonderful intro to a helmer who in the years since has given us some of the more wonderful entries in the world of present day horror both in terms of streaming series’ as well as slices of cinema. On a scale of 1-5 I give Oculus “2014” a solid 3.5 out of 5.