Reflections on how good a horror film Oculus (2014) is.
Modern, clever and creepily effective, “Oculus” is a spine-chilling breath of fresh air for the horror genre, revitalising the haunted house trope in an ingenious way.
Telling the story of the Russell Family and their acquisition of the The Lasser Glass, a sinister mirror which the daughter and son come to believe is haunted after it seemingly possesses and kills their mother and father. Ten years later, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) has managed to track down the mirror and as her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the mental institution where he has been since being blamed for his father’s murder, the two of them set out to clear their names and prove that the mirror is a malign supernatural force.
After a run of decidedly disappointing horror movies at the cinema (“Sinister”, “Devil’s Due”), I’d started to give up on ever seeing a decently creepy, quality horror movie at the cinema again. Intrigued by a well-crafted trailer, I decided to give “Oculus” a go. I’m so glad I did.
It subverts the damsel in distress trope by positioning Gillan’s Kaylie as a smart and capable woman who has done her research and believes she is ready to confront a dark evil from her childhood in order to exonerate her dead parents and her brother. It’s so great to watch a horror film where the characters act intelligently (at least intelligently apart from the decision to mess about with the mirror again in the first place). You’ll find yourself nodding in agreement as she lists off the precautions and measures she’s put in place to mitigate the risk her and her brother are taking. There are, admittedly, a couple of times where you think she should just activate the kill switch and be done with it, but the film manages to keep the plot moving along convincingly enough that you end up going with it rather than it nagging at you.
Of course, when your adversary can warp your perceptions and make you see what it wants you to see, precautions can’t be relied on – and good job too, otherwise we’d be denied this creepy, tense and atmospheric haunted house tale which emphasises dread and creeping fear over gore and manufactured fake-out shocks. Thoroughly up to date in its knowledge, there are numerous nifty uses of modern technology to combat the mysterious powers of the mirror including one (underused) use of an iPhone’s camera mode to distinguish between illusion and reality.
The film is well shot and paced, with the tension and menace building relentlessly and as it heads towards its finale, it’s edited with dazzling dexterity, effortlessly switching between the two time periods, blending them together and making it impossible to be sure what is real and what are the mirror’s illusions.
Karen Gillan is great as the initially feisty but increasingly uncertain heroine while Brenton Thwaites plays the reluctant and sceptic brother role well as his hospital conditioning falls away in the face of the increasingly disturbing supernatural evidence. The younger versions of the children, played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are also very good, with Annalise Basso’s performance reminiscent of Ariana Richards’ turn in “Jurassic Park” in terms of really selling the fear. The compact cast is rounded off by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochran (“Argo”, “CSI: Miami”) as the doomed parents who are slowly driven to madness.
Confident in its premise and bold in the execution, “Oculus” is an inventive and energetic take on the haunted house story with a good cast and a solid script. There’s (after)life in the Horror genre yet.