Through the Looking Glass
[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00J9C05NM][/pullquote] Mainstream horror films have had a bit of a lull recently. The normal plethora of over-edited horror trailer were conspicuously absent from the beginning of my screening of Oculus, and it’s been nearly a year since we had a decent horror film in the form of The Conjuring. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s that they just don’t seem to be being made. Obviously the straight-to-DVD market is still flooded with them, but in terms of cinema releases 2014 is seriously lacking in terms of horror flicks in the cinema, apart from the usual suspects like Paranormal Activity (though I don’t really count that any more). However, in the barren wasteland that is horror movies at the moment, Oculus comes along as a bit of a bold move, as a low-budget ($5 million), new-name horror start-up that obviously wants to be the first chapter in a new series.
In 2002, the Russell family moves into a big, creepy house in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully though, this time it’s not the house that’s haunted but the antique mirror in the father’s (Rory Cochrane) office. The mirror begins to influence the parents, and soon enough the family is torn apart (horribly literally in some cases) by domestic violence. Eleven years later, the daughter, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), is working at an antique-dealing firm so she can track down the mirror, and lo and behold, she does. This coincides with her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), being released from a mental hospital after the incident. Together they try and prove it was the mirror that caused the unrest in their family, not the family itself.
It seems like a fairly standard horror set-up, and that’s because it is. But the way Oculus tackles it is actually pretty excellent. In horror films, supernatural ones especially, the main fear comes from what we don’t understand, which is a natural fear to be exploited by horror filmmakers. This is where something like Mama failed because we basically knew what was going on from the first ten minutes, so very little was scary about it. Insidious did this well to an extent, but everything was, once again, revealed to us right before the climax, and there were no further surprises. Oculus does this better than any one of those films, as the past events that they’re trying to prove and the present day events are running at the same time, going back and forth in flashbacks so we don’t know exactly what happened right until the film wants us to.
Stylistically it is most reminiscent of The Shining, which did a similar family man with his children in the middle of nowhere goes crazy and tries to kill them, but if anything, Oculus does the transition between normal and insane much better than The Shining. When you look at Jack Nicholson, you see a crazy man. There’s just no getting around it, he acts crazy, he looks crazy, he’s pretty plainly crazy, which made the turn into insanity less impacting because was clearly always nuts. When you look at Rory Cochrane, however, you see a normal family who just wants to get some work done, which makes it far more unsettling when he goes The Hill Have Eyes on everyone.
Exhibiting a surprising turn is Karen Gillan, free from the shackles of her Doctor Who role, playing a much more three-dimensional character here than Amy Pond. She’s more than a feisty redhead, she’s vulnerable and determined and immeasurably stubborn. Throughout the film we see the events of the past from two different perspectives, that of Kaylie, supporting her theory of the mirror being evil, and Tim, who looks at it from a logical, scientific point of view. For a good chunk of the film we don’t know who is right and who is wrong, and it creates a good contrast.
The ending has certainly been a talking point with Oculus, and it sure is something worth talking about. It punches you in the gut but leaves the door open for sequels that I obviously hopes to make, but honestly, I really wish they wouldn’t. With the mirror, there’s basically only one premise for several films, and I’d hate to see it go the way of Paranormal Acitvity or Final Destination, making the same movie over and over with different characters, but that’s all you can do when you switch character focus for each film. There’s no connection, there’s no continuing thread between stories, just one single element that’s only motivation seems to be to spread chaos and pain. It’s interesting enough to hold a 100 minute film, but a franchise? I highly doubt it.