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Movie Review: ‘Oculus’

(Relativity Media)


Directed by Mike Flanagan
Relativity Media

By Asher Landau

April 11, 2014 12:04 a.m.

Supernatural horror movies have gone stale. Following the “Paranormal Activity” craze, imitators have flooded the market with cliché

jump scares, overdone mirror scenes and Asian-inspired female ghosts.

“Oculus,” directed by Mike Flanagan, shatters audience expectations by moving past these overdone conventions while still fully embracing their influence.

The film is split into two concurrent halves, one a flashback and the other in the present. The former deals with the Russell family’s move into a new house, bringing along a recently purchased antique mirror to spice up their bland suburban home. However, the mirror begins to distort the mother’s and father’s sense of reality and gradually possesses them, leading to the mental torture of their son and daughter.

Shown parallel to this, the other half chronicles the son, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), finally leaving a psychiatric hospital after 10 years of treatment for the deaths of his parents by the mirror. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) locates the mirror in an auction house and, much to Tim’s distress, sets it up in their old home, hoping to film its supernatural influence and avenge their parents.

“Oculus” is a slow burner, taking its time to establish the story and the relationship of Tim and Kaylie that was made complicated by their years apart. After about the one-third mark, the film finally dishes out an endless array of scares which exhausts the audience with an onslaught of unpredictable twists, turns and terror.

Unlike most modern horror films (even well-written ones like 2013’s “The Conjuring”), jump scares in “Oculus” are rare. When they do occur, their effect is staggering.

In an early scene, Kaylie inspects the mirror in the auction house before she steals it and sees a hooded object in the shape of a human appear behind her. Rather than disappear as expected when she turns around, the apparition remains, with the film refusing to indulge our preconceptions of horror films. Instead of relying on classic tropes to fuel the action, the film reinvents them.

The true terror of “Oculus” stems from the audience’s Hollywood-trained brain and the inability to guess what will happen next. As one of the most nefarious villains to ever grace the big screen, the mirror alters what Kaylie and Tim see as well as what they think they are doing.

Another innovative aspect of this film is the integration of past and present into one seamless story. When the mirror forces them to relive their past, the lines begin to blur and timelines intersect and run together.

This is a testament to Flanagan’s direction, which tracks from one time period to another without making the film seem disjointed or awkward. It is so fluid that eventually, there is no way to tell whether Tim and Kaylie are actually being tormented by their demonic parents or are just experiencing another of the mirror’s illusions.

Not just a well-written horror movie, “Oculus” is also a superb character study that warrants higher praise than it will receive as a genre film. The centerpiece of the story is not the ingenious scares, but rather the layered relationship between Kaylie and Tim.

Tim is torn between avoiding re-exposure to the trauma that landed him in a mental hospital and protecting his sister, the only human connection he has left. Kaylie wants to exonerate her brother while unwittingly endangering his life in her lust for revenge.

The glue that holds the past and present segments together is their unyielding love, even in the face of abject terror. Their relationship is the one constant that the mirror cannot bring into question.

– Asher Landau

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Asher Landau
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