Mirror, mirror on the waAAAARGH

Oculus (2014)

Hopes really weren’t high for this one. I mean, a horror film about an evil mirror produced by WWE Studios? Yeah, I think my debit card’s washing its hair that night. In the months since its cinema release, I’d heard surprisingly positive murmurings about Oculus. As it’s that time of year and I need a token horror review, this fit the bill perfectly.

“Couldn’t find any decent lines from the film.”

Oculus tells the story of Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites). Since he was convicted of murder as a child, Tim has spent his life in a mental hospital. We join Tim as he’s released on the eve of his 21st birthday after being deemed sane and no longer a threat to himself or others. He goes to stay with his sister Kaylie, who has been obsessing over the event, convinced that Tim’s not to blame for what happened. She believes it all has something to do with an antique mirror known as the “Lasser Glass” which may or may not have the ability to possess, distort reality and mess with peoples’ minds. Kaylie has hatched a plan to not only record the supernatural qualities of the mirror and prove Tim’s innocence, but to finally destroy it. All fine and dandy, but her plan involves direct confrontation of the mirror and the demons within.

Acting is solid across the board. Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff are the standouts, but the kids playing the young Tim and Kaylie are great. Brenton Thwaites is decent, but I think my lack of interest in his character dragged him down. Kaylie is an unusually interesting lead. She’s deeply flawed and neurotic which informs her various well thought out backups and precautions when taking on the Lasser Glass. All of Kaylie’s assorted rigs are great setups for supernatural shit to come. Due to the reality warping nature of the beast, there are various timers to snap them out of any mirror-induced hallucinations as well as a final failsafe in the form of a rigged anchor on an automatic timer ready to swing into the mirror and shatter the glass bastard if all goes wrong. These are fantastic elements and it’s fun to see how devious the mirror can be in circumventing these measures. Crucially, they all feel like an extension of Kaylie’s (completely justified) fear of the mirror and it’s unnerving to see them and her slowly broken down. Tim is a different story. I just couldn’t warm to him. He’s a boring non-entity. I should totally be on his side, from empathy if nothing else. It’s clear there’s some supernatural shenanigans afoot and it’s looking unlikely he’s to blame. So why didn’t I care at all? I think it’s because they don’t give him enough to do and it’s usually up to Kaylie to swoop in and save the scene by being interesting. I get that he’s a damaged, passive character, but give me something.

Whilst it looks like any other shiny contemporary horror film, Oculus skilfully avoids most of the dumb beartraps most modern horrors stumble into. There’s a real backlash against jump scares and now seems as good as time as any to stick my oar in. I have no problem with jump scares if they’re earned (Alien and Rec. come to mind), however most films don’t even come close to deserving them. They set up some vaguely tense scene, drop out the music and then bam!- an orchestral screech and some fast motion. I’m a complicated man, not a machine. I want some fucking foreplay. Anyway, I talk about this because Oculus is purposely very light on the jump scares and focuses more on atmosphere building and psychological spookiness. It all adds to a creeping sense of dread and legitimises the ludicrous concept of a killer mirror. The film is well constructed and basically takes place in one location seen from two different time periods, with frequent flashbacks to the Russells as kids. The first half of the film does some admittedly creepy and creative stuff. The way the mirror messes with people is great and whilst not overtly scary, provides some disturbing and uneasy scenes. Much like the characters, you’ll be questioning what’s real and what isn’t and it all hits a much deeper part of the brain than goretastic deaths and superficial jumpy moments can. I was more involved because I actually liked at least 50% of the leads. I understood where they were coming from and wanted them to succeed. Things like characters, plot and motivations are kept simple and efficient in an era of filmmaking that seems to be hellbent on telling clusterfucked stories populated by bland characters. This is probably the biggest and sharpest trap Oculus avoids and I was heartened by it.

Oculus started to lose its way for me towards the end. Instead of capitalising on the goodwill and general unease it legitimately earned during the first two acts, it devolves into a more conventional and predictable spookfest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a film killer and it certainly doesn’t negate its previous good work, but it’s just disappointingly usual for a film that had such an effective start. It’s like it lost confidence in what it was doing and decided to lean heavily on the standard tropes of the genre. I get that it all needs to build to something, but to spunk most of the atmosphere away in favour of more overt blah horror is a mistake.

“Fuck it, no-one reads these anyway.”

I enjoyed Oculus quite a bit. It’s slickly directed and contains some slow, dread-ratcheting stuff that sadly is still a rarity in contemporary horror. It’s a lot subtler than I was expecting, which was a pleasant surprise. Whilst I appreciated the solid characterisation and the atmosphere, I think I liked it more for what it didn’t do, rather than for what it did. I realise that probably sounds like the ultimate back-handed compliment, but it isn’t intended as such. Anyway, Happy Halloween, you spooky bastards.

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