Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Mike Flanagan
Eleven years ago, the Russell family were at the centre of a horrific family tragedy. Marie Russell (Katee Sachoff) died under violent circumstances after a mental collapse and her husband Alan (Cochran), was shot by their ten-year-old son, Tim (Garrett Ryan, Thwaites) who was then sent away to a mental institution. Now released, Tim and his sister Kaylie (Annalise Basso, Gillan) conduct an experiment on the sinister powers of an antique mirror that they believe to have been responsible for the death of their parents.
When compared to many of its contemporaries within the horror genre, Oculus displays more ambition than most even if what makes it unique is also what often trips it up. Mainstream horror movies today often come with some very familiar stylistic elements. At the moment, the found footage subgenre (where the film plays out as if it’s been recovered from a character recording the events) is in vogue, jump-scares (which intend to shock the audience with sudden surprises) are common and the theme of possession is often used. Oculus is a horror movie about possession even if it doesn’t play it up front.
The found footage subgenre has been around for a while now. Originating with 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust but not getting a real mainstream foothold until almost twenty years later with The Blair Witch Project and then sparking another round of interest following the success of the franchise-spawning Paranormal Activity. But beyond the gimmickry, it’s rare that such films display any originality. By playing on it in the background (or main character, Kaylie, is filming herself but we never get to see much of what was filmed) provides an interesting twist, even if its not a found footage film, per se. Most of the film attempts to scare mostly through atmosphere and mood, with the occasional lashing of gore. It never really works, but it’s still a nice change of pace from the practice of simply surprising your audience into submission, a cheap trick that seems to be very popular right now.
To an extent, the film also seems to serve as a vehicle for Karen Gillan to break it big in Hollywood. Already well-known as Amy Pond in Doctor Who (a phenomenon in the UK and a long-time cult hit across the Atlantic) it’s uncertain how well this (as well as her upcoming role in Guardians Of The Galaxy) will bode for her future. A Scot actress sharing the spotlight with Australian actor Brenton Thwaites, their accents are actually rather seamless and their performances are competent even if they’re not extraordinary. Indeed, for the most part the performances in general are rather low-key for a horror movie save for Katee Sachoff, but that comes as part of her role, even if sometimes the crazy is pushed a little too far.
What really makes this film stand out is its approach to structure. Given the central object of the film is a mirror, mirroring makes up a major thematic element to the plot, sometimes in subtle ways. The film constantly splinters between present and past time that at times appear like flashbacks and at others almost like our characters have gone back in time to when they were children. It’s an intriguing idea, if a little too confusing. Another theme is mental illness and whilst it is clear that Tim, our male lead, has served time in a mental hospital, it’s at times teased that Kaylie may not be entirely stable herself. A great idea to riff on, but sadly it’s ultimately discarded.
Oculus seems to want to boast itself as a “thinking man’s horror film”, sort of merging together Poltergeist and Inception. For sheer ambition alone it is to be lauded and placed above most mainstream horror flooding the market these days. But to others, like the horror genre itself to an extent, it’s an acquired (and not quite fully refined) taste.