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Oculus

Movie Information

The Story: A young woman sets out to prove that her brother wasn't responsible for the murder of their father 11 years ago. The real culprit, she insists, is an evil mirror. The Lowdown: Though it's certainly good — and should be seen by discerning horror fans — Oculus is a few scares shy of the "instant classic" some are claiming.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basson, Garrett Ryan
Rated: R

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As is often the case with a better-than-average horror picture, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is in danger of being oversold as being better than it is. Oh, it’s good, and Flanagan — after years of little-seen direct-to-video or barely released efforts — has a well-deserved little hit on his hands. It has a lot going for it. There is a sense of dread that builds nicely. It doesn’t mind taking its time. The acting is solid enough. The soundtrack is effective at keeping the tension going. The interplay between current events and those of 11 years earlier verges on brilliant. (It is worth noting here that Flanagan also edited the film.) But perhaps the most ingratiating aspect of the film is that it is so professionally made. The camera setups are all stable. There’s not a trace of jittery-cam to be found in the entire film. If there is any hand-held camera at all, it’s very good hand-held camera — none of that “it’ll look more exciting if we keep it shaky” business. Having said all that, I’ll also note that the film is longer than it needs to be (a disease of our era), and the ending isn’t all that it might have been. The result is a good but not great movie. Still, it’s certainly one for genre cognoscenti.

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The story is a somewhat new wrinkle on the old haunted mirror schtick, but that might be viewed as classic rather than cliched. The somewhat new approach here has little to do with the mirror itself and instead focuses on the main characters. Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, TV’s Dr. Who) is a young woman of 23. Her 21-year-old brother, Tim (Australian TV actor Brenton Thwaites), is just getting out of a mental hospital for the murder of their father 11 years earlier. The truth, of course, is that he didn’t do it. The mirror caused it. While Tim has spent those 11 years being convinced that he was responsible, Kaylie has been tracking down the evil history of the murderous mirror. She’s also been planning to keep their childhood promise of destroying the mirror and proving Tim’s innocence.

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None of this is as simple as it may sound. First of all, others have attempted to smash the damned thing, and the results have been, let’s say, inimical to their well-being. Plus, the freshly released Tim really has come to accept his guilt and would rather put all this behind him. He doesn’t do that, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a movie — just the possibly unhinged Kaylie talking to her elaborate video setup about the history of the mirror, waiting for it to do something. Most of this works quite well. OK, I never understood why Kaylie sold the mirror at auction only to have to “borrow” it from the auction house before it’s delivered to its unfortunate new owner — especially since she doesn’t intend on the mirror surving her investigation. That’s more or less a quibble in a movie that expects you to buy into an evil mirror.

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Where the movie just doesn’t come together is the ending. It’s forced, almost anticlimactic and ultimately predictable — not enough payoff for the investment in time. Unlike some, I actually liked all the cross-cutting between the time periods. For me, it accentuated the drama of both stories. I also didn’t mind that the mirror is merely presented as evil without any explanation, but I’m an easy sell on that sort of thing. (I know people who won’t be.) But the ending is another matter. It should be big. It should be shocking. Instead, it’s adequate, which is OK, I suppose, but oughtn’t you be able to expect more? Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language. 

Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beautcatcher.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

10 thoughts on “Oculus

  1. SamHunt

    This is the best pure horror movie I have seen in the past decade (The Innkeepers is the only thing I can think of that rivals it). Hanke, I love you, you’re the best film critic out there, but I thought the ending was legit. It was both twisted and unpredictable, at least in the moment of my first viewing. In hindsight, I understand how a critical viewer such as yourself would consider it predictable. There are even multiple flash-forward shots that hint at the threat of what’s to come. But, the way it is delivered worked for me. The film succeeds so well at blurring the line between delusion and reality that once our minds have been forced through the blender it is hard to see what’s ahead. I’m a fan of The Conjuring and Insidious, but the ending of this movie worked better than the everybody lives-neatly-tied resolution of those movies. I liked the truly twisted nature of the conclusion, particularly because the mirror warps our minds so deeply that, for all we know, it was ALL Tim’s backwards delusion, and Tim was actually responsible for everything (I know that’s a stupid, far-fetched reach, but that just goes to show how much this movie got me thinking).

    I agree mostly with your love of the lack of moving camera. Handheld camera is the least effective horror schtick of our times, and this film is definitely classy without it. But I thought this movie was plenty disturbing and thoroughly scary all the way through. Much scarier than that Insidious sequel. The whole idea of the mirror targeting all psyches within its proximity and truly warping them into paranoia, hallucination and delusion is really original to me. Can you suggest some other precedents for this supposedly dated horror motif? I thought the plot devices were unique, at least in the way it made me think about a lot of family issues, mental instability, paranoia and distrust in a very dark way.

    I think you’re right except about the ending. By today’s (admittedly) low horror standards, this movie gets ten stars in my book. LOVED it!

  2. Ken Hanke

    Haunted mirrors at least go back 1945′s Dead of Night. It’s the premise of the Thriller episode “The Hungry Glass.” Mirrors as supernatural in one way or another in such things as Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Orpheus (1950) . Mirrors that show an alternate reality are in films from Mad Love (1935) to Tommy (1975). And, of course, there’s Mirrors (2008). This, by the way, is strictly off the top of my head. Dead of Night is probably the closest to this.

    Bear in mind, I love moving camera — which this movie has — but not that shaky-cam stuff, which is a completely different animal. Gotta say I liked both Insidious films better, which isn’t to say I didn’t like Oculus — just not as much.

  3. Chip Kaufmann

    The THRILLER episode THE HUNGRY GLASS is actually the closest to this movie in its presentation and resolution. The mirror episode from FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) with David Warner is also remarkably similar but on a much smaller scale. While DEAD OF NIGHT and another THRILLER episode THE PRISONER IN THE MIRROR share similarities, they have very different conclusions.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Regardless of whether or not they resolve differently, they’re all at bottom haunted mirror movies. Doesn’t the TV movie Fear No Evil also involve a haunted mirror?

  5. Chip Kaufmann

    I had forgotten about FEAR NO EVIL but you’re absolutely right. I remember thinking at the time it was broadcast (1969) that it was rather disturbing but I haven’t seen it since then. I think there may have been a sequel as well.

    Too bad many of those Made for TV movies from the late 60s and early 70s aren’t available today. I would love to see GOODNIGHT MY LOVE, an ersatz Raymond Chandler opus with Richard Boone & Michael Dunn as down and out detectives, again.

  6. Ken Hanke

    There was a sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970), which wasn’t very good as I recall. I did see Fear No Evil on TV again sometime in the ’70s and it mostly held up to my memories from the age of 14.

  7. SamHunt

    Hanke – I love how much you love Tommy. You were a guest at one of my film criticism classes at UNCA about five years ago, when we watched Tommy during class. It’s one of my favorites, too. The mirror in that story is one brick in The Who/Ken Russell’s huge wall of awesome metaphors (pun intended from another classic rock band). Interesting you mention that mirror in a thread about Oculus!

  8. Ken Hanke

    That must have been Don Diefenbach’s class. I spoke there three times (I think), but only once with TOMMY. The mirrors in the film (almost certainly influenced by Cocteau) do serve as portals of a sort, so it immediately occurred to me when the question arose about the use of mirrors in fantastic manners in movies. By the way, Sam, it’s not TOMMY, but we’re tentatively down to screen Ken’s follow-up LISZTOMANIA on Tue., Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. at The Carolina — with Mrs. Ken Russell in attendance. Mark your calendar — tentatively.

    • SamHunt

      That was Don Diefenbach’s class! I had no idea what movie we were seeing that day (if I recall, we were never given a schedule of movies — it was a surprise every week), but when I realized it was TOMMY, and that there was a looming film critic’s shadow in the corner of the room (yours), I realized it was gonna be a great movie night. It was among the most memorable experiences I ever had in class. I didn’t know who you were at the time, as I was an underage student in a bubble, but I can’t thank you enough for the visit that day. It was remarkable to see a critic spill his love for a movie like TOMMY. I was thinking, “what the hell is going on and why have I not read this dude’s reviews?) If I still lived in Asheville I would be at your Carolina screenings as often as possible. I was always working during those events’ hours so I never got a chance. I’ll be back some day, though.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, thank you for the kind words. If you ever do make it back here, you must stop in at The Carolina screenings!

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