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Oculus

oculusposterstarring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, and Rory Cochrane
written by Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan and directed by Mike Flanagan
Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
72%

Kaylie Russell (Gillan) is finally being reunited with her younger brother Tim (Thwaites), who has spent 11 years in a mental institution after murdering their father (Cochrane) at the age of 10, after their father sadistically tortured and killed their mother (Sackhoff). But Kaylie is upset to learn that Tim has forgotten the truth: the tragic events were caused by a cursed mirror that their father had acquired. Now, Kaylie wants Tim to help her prove that the mirror is malignant, and then destroy it. The mirror, unfortunately, has other ideas.

Oculus is so close to being something really good that I probably enjoyed it more than it really deserved. The concept is strong and simple, with a novel but recognizable central conceit. Despite its simplicity, the set-up feels a bit over-complicated. One scene in particular contains one of the most clumsy lecture-mode exposition dumps I’ve ever seen: a monologue by Kaylie that lasts several minutes as she explains all of the precautions and fail-safes surrounding her plan, and then proceeds to give a detailed history of the mirror and its victims. I suppose this is mostly an attempt to show that she has really thought this through, but it has somewhat the opposite effect when we see how completely ineffectual her preparation was (one item in particular, which I’ll get to momentarily, seems like a terrible idea from the beginning).

Gillan, to her credit, does her best in this scene, and manages a convincing American accent, as well. Actually, she is pretty effective throughout the movie; so much so that members of a certain fandom probably won’t spend the whole movie half-expecting a certain blue police box to show up and save the day. Thwaites is a bit wooden, as is his younger counterpart. Sackhoff gets short shrift, with almost nothing to do, while Cochrane acquits himself well, hopping back and forth between benign dad and possessed monster. The stand-out performance of the film, though, is definitely Annalise Basso as the younger Kaylie, who pulls off a perfect horror movie mix of strength and vulnerability that her older self trades in for a strangely overconfident flippancy.

Oculus really hits its stride in the 2nd act, moving seamlessly back and forth between the past and the present as Kaylie and Tim lose their grip on what’s real and what isn’t (and so do we). This psychological unmooring is the movie’s greatest strength, leading us to question everything that we see (and we see a lot of weird stuff). Tim does a good job playing the skeptic to Kaylie’s believer, until he gets drawn right in with her.

Oculus is at its best when it gives us as much room as possible to wonder how much of what we see is actually happening, and how much is due to the malignant influence of the mirror. Or even leads us to question whether the mirror isn’t just a mirror, and it is the siblings themselves that are mentally unhinged like their father. Unfortunately, that ambiguous space shrinks smaller and smaller in the film’s final act, and leaves us with less doubt than it could have in the denouement. Any such ambiguity would have been welcome, given the complete lack of surprises in the film’s final hour. There are still plenty of scares, but it’s a bit of a letdown to realize that the movie has just stayed on the track we saw laid out long before. No jumping the rails here.

The payoff of one device in particular is telegraphed from the moment we see it: Kaylie’s ultimate fail-safe, a boat anchor weighted with a barbell set to plummet from the ceiling and shatter the mirror unless she resets a wall timer every half hour. And I get it. This is probably intentional. It’s Chekov’s gun, and all that. But for all the meticulous, methodical logic with which Kaylie proceeds, this is so obviously a terrible idea. I spent most of the movie cringing while I watched Kaylie and Tim stand directly in the line of fire without any indication as to when they last reset the timer. Seriously, you two. Don’t stand in front of your own deathtrap.

Anyway, that aside, there are plenty of thrills and chills here for an evening’s entertainment. As horror movies go, this one is actually just about my speed. Though, for my money, the scariest thing of all was contemplating that all of the flashback scenes in the movie take place Many Years Ago when the adult protagonists were children, way, way back . . . in 2003. Oy.

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~ by Jared on April 22, 2014.

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