Skip to main content

A Review of "Oculus" (2013)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Oculus is an effective and intelligent mind-trip horror movie that's probably nothing like what you'd expect going into it.  The ending falters a bit - it feels too much like a cheap sucker punch - but for the most part it's an engaging horror tale that plays brilliantly with expectations and tropes.  The performances are consistently great and the direction is gripping and nerve-wracking.  This is definitely worth a watch, if not a purchase.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Introductory Part Where I Whine About Mirrors

You guys remember when I wrote that post about being afraid of mirrors?  That's still a thing.

I'm positive my fear is rooted in seeing one too many horror movies as a child.  From the (little) reading I've done on the subject, it seems that's how pretty much all spectrophobes form.  Given that information, it seems kind of stupid to watch a movie like Oculus, which is specifically about a haunted mirror.

What can I say?  It's Halloween and I'm looking for a good fright.  A movie about a haunted mirror should be like shooting fish in a barrel.

I mention this up front in case anybody out there is looking for a chance to accuse some random dude of being biased in his criticism.  I'm pre-programmed to find this movie terrifying, so... yeah, take it all with a grain of salt, I guess.

The Part Where I Describe the Plot

Oddly enough, the stuff that really unnerved me in this movie was not related to the mirror.  I really was expecting a bunch of scenes where characters look at a spooky mirror and see spooky things, and then I'd be all nervous for the next two weeks anything I had to go to the bathroom and see my reflection.  Turns out that's not really what Oculus was going for.  There's maybe one or two shots with creepy mirror hijinks, but most of the movie goes for a mind-trip exploration of insanity and reality instead.

It's better for it.

The plot hinges on two siblings, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), who come together for a night to experiment on a creepy mirror that may or may not have supernatural powers.  Eleven years prior, their parents were killed under unusual circumstances.  The official story is that their father tortured and murdered their mother, but Kaylie believes his mind was under control of the mirror.

Since then, Tim has been in therapy, slowly recovering from the horrors of that terrible day.  Kaylie, on the other hand, has been researching the morbid history behind the mirror and plotting a way she can prove the truth to the rest of the world.  She has stolen the mirror from an auction house and set it up in their childhood home, long abandoned, with a variety of cameras and other testing equipment to track its effects.  Now that Tim has been released from the mental care facility, Kaylie has roped him into a final confrontation with the mirror.

That's about as much as you can say without giving away any surprises.  It's a tight plot that stays focused on just a handful of characters and motives.  And madness.  Lots and lots of delicious, wonderful madness.

A Brief Complaint About the Ending (Before I Talk About the Good Stuff)

You should just assume that since I'm talking about the ending, there's going to be some sorta-spoilers here.  Skip to the next section if you don't want to ruin it.

For the most part, I'm fine with the conclusion.  It's creepy and a bit shocking and totally engrossing.  But there's something about the last ten minutes or so that feels like kind of a cheat.  I'm not sure if I can put my finger on it.

It's not that the movie ends tragically; you pretty much expect that when you're watching a horror movie.  I guess it's just that the conclusion is so singularly, one-sidedly unfair to the protagonists. It almost feels like the movie kept introducing new rules about its villain, one at a time, until they finally got to a no-win situation.

That probably sounds childish of me, but I can't help it.  Maybe it's just that I actually felt really connected to the characters for once and I really wanted something better for them.  Wow, imagine that... I actually cared about the people I'm watching?  Who's genius idea was it to make engrossing characters?

The Part Where I Write About Madness

Madness is one of those things that movies don't often pull off too well.  I think too many writers and directors think it's easier than it actually is, and you often end up with lazy, half-assed characters who aren't really "mad" so much as they are "kinda confused."  (Example: Secret Window.)

Oculus succeeds by leaps and bounds at invoking madness.  It's one of the best movies I've seen lately that actually does make it difficult to tell what is real and what isn't.  A huge part of the reason is that it shows you, the viewer, contradictory information and withholds an answer, which leads you to question reality without necessarily being prompted by the movie.

Contrast this with most movies where the characters get contradictory information, but we, as the viewers, get to see the truth and we just end up thinking they're a bunch of jackasses.  (Example: Anna.)

The last half hour is a tremendous exploration of illusion and terror, with excellent rising tension that never relies too much on cheap scares or jump scenes.  It actually feels like you're descending into chaos without ever completely losing a grip on the film itself.  It's a terrific final act, save for that nagging thing noted above.

(I know it sounds like I just contradicted myself, but... well, go see the movie and maybe you'll see what I mean.)

Now I'm Going to Talk About Skepticism (Again)

I've posted / complained a couple times before about skepticism in movies.  I'm worried I might just sound like a sour asshole anytime the topic comes up.  It's as if I can't be pleased.

Great news!  Oculus is, for once, a good example of how to write a skeptical character.  It's incredibly refreshing.

This time around, Tim takes up the Scully role of questioning the protagonist's apparently twisted view of the world.  Unlike other failed movie skeptics, he doesn't do so out of spite or arrogance.  He's genuinely concerned for his sister's mental well-being and wants to talk her down from what appears to be the edge of madness.  He's not righteous; he's humble.  He comes from a background of confusion and is trying to make sense of his universe based on the evidence he has at hand.

Most importantly, Tim does not stubbornly cling to his viewpoint even in the face of contradictory evidence.  When new information comes to light - that is, when it becomes objectively clear that the mirror actually is haunted - he doesn't act bitter and pissy.  He incorporates the new information and adjusts his worldview accordingly.  This is how science works.  This is the entire basis of skepticism: you don't naysay, you just ask for evidence, and when you get new evidence, you adapt.

It's amazing how a well-made character brings so much life and tension to an otherworldly story.  Tim lets you get on board with the movie quickly and effectively, but he never feels like a story-stopper or a frustrating whiner.  He's exactly what you want out of your protagonist: competent, but vulnerable.

I don't know much about Mike Flanagan, the film's director (except that he's a fellow Marylander who grew up right next to my hometown, so that's awesome).  I don't want to read into the movie too much or project anything onto him or his beliefs.  Even so, I suspect he must know the secret that skeptics have been trying to say for years.  It's not that we want movies to be factual - just realistic.  I'm all for a supernatural story, but I can't get behind it if the characters are one-dimensional losers.

Speaking of good characters...

A Quick Bit About a Great Female Lead

Kaylie is also a great protagonist.  That part I said earlier about "competent, but vulnerable?"  Totally applies to her, too.  She's cunning, but a little too sure of herself and her plans.  She is fully committed to destroying the mirror, but she has her moment of doubt when Tim encourages her to seek therapy.  She's an excellent character all around.

What I like best about Kaylie is that you never get the feeling that she's guaranteed to be a survivor or a victim.  Horror movies often lump their women into one of those two categories, so it's tough to feel too much sympathy; either you're the Last Girl or you're the sexy cheerleader that's going to get butchered.  Kaylie is much more like Erin from You're Next; you really don't know what'll happen next, but you want to stick around to find out.

Oculus is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and streaming.  Go check it out.