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by Eric Kohn
April 10, 2014 3:27 PM
18 Comments
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Review: Why ‘Oculus’ Is One of the Scariest American Horror Movies In Years

It’s easy enough to jolt an audience into submission, but that’s not the same thing as getting under its skin. Recent horror movies ranging from the "Paranormal Activity" series to "The Conjuring" excel at the art of the jump scare, though no matter how expertly delivered, it’s a cheap gimmick at best.

"Oculus" is an exception. Appropriately being co-released by microbudget fear factory Blumhouse Production — its founder, Jason Blum, helped turn the scrappy productions "Paranormal Activity" and "The Purge" into profitable franchises — much of the new movie’s chilly atmosphere involves the experiences of two characters in a room with one very ominous mirror. As the haunted object plays tricks on its two would-be victims' minds, the audience falls prey to the ruse as well. Director Mike Flanagan turns the fragile nature of consciousness into a better fear tactic than any visceral shocks could possibly achieve.

"Oculus" certainly relies on a familiar toolbox, including the occasional clichéd moment when something scary materializes right behind an unsuspecting character. But the specifics of the scenario engender a fundamental state of dread that grows heavier with each murky twist. Flanagan’s script, co-written by Jeff Howard and based on an earlier short film, nimbly moves between events that transpired 11 years ago and their ramifications in the present: In the opening scenes, 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a psychotherapy ward after years on lockdown and reunited with his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). With a steely resolve, she announces that the pair must return to the childhood home and "kill it" — a declaration that immediately establishes a menacing supernatural presence that remains hard to define throughout the movie.

But Flanagan quickly fills in a few more pertinent details: The siblings’ youth was disrupted with the arrival of the mirror into the claustrophobic study where their father (Rory Cochrane) worked alone; at some point, maybe because of his own lapsing sanity or maybe because the mirror drove him mad, their ill-fated father murdered their mother (Katee Sackhoff), at which point young Tim shot him dead. Kaylie has been waiting for her brother to reemerge into society so the two of them can confront the bizarre ancient menace, which is apparently responsible for 48 deaths in 400 years. As soon as he’s free, she snatches up the mirror at a local auction and brings him back to the scene of the crime, with camcorders set up to capture their every move over the course of one isolated, dreary night. In short order, plenty of things go bump in the night, but it’s gradually clear that nothing happening can be taken for granted, including Kaylie and Tim’s own behaviors. At its best, "Oculus" is a tightly enacted chamber drama that just happens to include supernatural phenomena. The mirror is messing with them at every turn — and, by extension, it’s messing with us.

As the plot constantly shifts between modern day events and Kaylee and Tim’s childhood experiences as they witnessed their parents’ lapsing sanity, "Oculus"  becomes an effective allegory for the lingering trauma of familial dysfunction. The small ensemble meshes nicely with the sophisticated narrative approach: Thwaits, as the grown brother, maintains a credibly frightened demeanor as he worries that he might be going crazy all over again; Gillian, playing the Mulder to Thwaits’ Scully, continually strikes the calculated pose of a true believer even as her own insecurities slowly take over. Their collective fears of the unknown turn this rather basic premise into a sneakily profound meditation on more realistic concerns.

The first sign that "Oculus" has more on its mind arrives as the adult Tim attempts to shrug off his sister’s recollections of supernatural occurrences with the “fuzzy trace” theory of human psychology — essentially, false memories derived from inaccurate associations: In Tim’s view, their dad was an unfaithful lunatic — hence the cryptic presence of another woman in his study after hours — and eventually went ballistic on his wife as a result of their marital tensions. His kids’ convictions about the nature of these events, the thinking goes, suggest a history of mental illness in the family.

And who’s to say whether Tim has it right? As the duo creep around the house, evading passing shadows and lashing out blindly in the wrong directions, it’s never entirely clear if any given point of view holds ground. "Oculus" keeps digging further into their frightened state, thickening the dreary atmosphere at every turn, so that even while the outcome of the scenario is fairly predictable early on, it’s continually haunting as it maps out a path to get there. A truly contemporary horror movie, its eeriness stems from manipulated cell phone conversations and recorded data on the ubiquitous cameras that may or may not accurately represent events as they transpire. No matter how much technology they have on their side, nothing in certain.

The two-pronged progression doesn’t make things any easier. Past and present continue to merge as this pair of unreliable narrators wander through memories and attempt to act faster than the mirror can anticipate. The ongoing sense of ambiguity is distinctly cinematic, forcing viewers to question whether any given moment actually takes place. (One grisly bit, in which Kaylee bites into an apple and temporarily believes she’s chewing on a lightbulb by mistake, harkens back to the infamous "face peeling" hallucination in "Poltergeist.") The very act of watching movies calls into question the way we process reality; "Oculus," for all its familiar scares, expertly capitalizes on this fundamental power.

In recent years, few American genre films have managed the extreme spookiness found in many of their overseas brethren. Even while "Oculus" plays by the book in individual moments, it manages to invent a shrewder context for the events in question. It’s not the scenes that matter so much as the way they do (and don’t) fit together. It uses subjectivity like a weapon. By contrast, last year’s generally well-liked haunted house effort "The Conjuring" capably grappled with issues of faith, but failed to unite its bigger ideas with the rudimentary process for freaking us out.

In "Oculus," the horror is at once deceptively simple and rooted in a deep, primal uneasiness. Its scariest aspects are universally familiar: By witnessing the two leads fall prey to the ghastly object’s manipulation, we too become its victims. Reflecting the way our greatest fears lie within our own insecurities, the mirror is an ideal metaphor for the horror genre’s lasting potency.

Criticwire Grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Relativity opens "Oculus" nationwide this weekend. With little competition, it should find respectable returns among the sizable audience for horror films, although its primary audience lies on VOD, where it should be successful for a long time.


18 Comments

  • Nelis | July 21, 2014 7:00 AMReply

    Once again, i am really really dissapointed to see such a bad horror movie. It was 100 % predictable, 0% scary and worst of all they threw in the '" it is so complex and unexplainable, so it must be good" concept in it...

    Greetings from the Netherlands

  • Emmit | July 19, 2014 5:26 AMReply

    I don't know what movie you people that say this movie is terrible saw...but I saw one of the scariest movies I've ever seen. I think that you must be desensitized by all the blood and gore bs of modern cinema. I can tell you from personal experience that the scariest thing that you will ever experience in your life, is questioning your own sanity. I have had mental problems my whole life, seeing things that other people cannot see, feeling and seeing things that have made me question the very nature of reality. I have spent time in mental institutions because of this. You that say this movie is terrible, more than likely and thank God, have not experienced what this is like. Anyway, this movie is the scariest movie that I have ever seen. Spend some time questioning your own sanity...and then rewatch the movie...lol...just my opinion. Flame on.

  • Bridgette | June 25, 2014 10:12 PMReply

    The movie was ok. The ending was to predictable though in my opinion. They should've made it a twist. And the movie wasnt that scary the movie Mirrors is scarier than Oculus.

  • Miranda Jones | June 19, 2014 6:52 PMReply

    The only reason that I was going to watch this movie, was because of the (Smoking Hot) James Lafferty. And then I watched the trailer and got excited and thought, "This movie is going to be awesome." So I just got through watching it, and if I was rating it 1-10, I would rate it negative infinity. First of all, James Lafferty wasn't in there at all and that on it's own makes the movie SUCK. I mean, I don't want to exaggerate so I would say he was in there for a whole 5 minutes. IF we're lucky. And then, they want to just randomly put him in the movie and KILL him! Kill him, with a dull broken plate. By barely touching the side of his neck. And then half a second later, after bleeding two drops of blood, he dies. Right there. For NO reason. Then, my cousin had to convince me to finish the movie and not throw the laptop across the room after they decided to kill the best (hottest) actor ever. And then after I reluctantly agree to finish this awful waste of time film, the main character just dies and the boy is handcuffed and WHOOP! The movie is over. The end.

    Congrats Mike Flanagan, for producing the worst horror film in the history of worst horror films. If I had a trophy with that on it, you would get it (shoved up your butt)
    Anyone thinking of watching this disgusting film, don't waste your time. Life is short, go watch Rubber instead.

  • ben | May 26, 2014 1:39 AMReply

    Even though it's getting mostly positive reviews I feel Oculus is wildly underrated and a modern horror masterpiece which will outlive The Conjuring in cult status. The ending is chilling also.

  • Miranda (is an idiot) | June 28, 2014 7:03 PM

    Miranda. Who watches a horror film for a good looking actor, male or female? Saying a director should die bc you don't approve of said actors death is ignorant and sets your people back 5000 years. Just because you didn't understand the movie don't bash it so hard

  • Miranda Jones | June 19, 2014 6:55 PM

    Are you high on meth? Do you run a meth lab, sir? The Conjuring made me rip the skin off of my cousins arm when we were in the theatre. It made me piss and crap my pants every time I watched it. I

    Oh, and guess what, in The Conjuring, the main characters, LIVE!!!!!!!

  • Chris | April 25, 2014 4:34 AMReply

    I just saw the movie and was only slightly disappointed. Mostly at the ending. The story itself was a little complex showing both the past and the current events leading up to an overall decent climax. Not excellent, just decent. If you have trouble following multiple storylines you probably wont care for Oculus. Especially towards the end when the storylines mesh together for parts.

    There's a difference between jump scares and what i call "true horror". The jump scares are all about the surprises and this movie does have a few of those. But the "true horror" aspect of this film is the uneasy feeling in your gut that lingers with you for hours after a movie. This movie did a pretty good job as casting a suspenseful atmosphere, not as good as some others ( a vanishing on seventh street for example), but still pretty good. It's very much a psychological horror that leaves you guessing.

    i"m not going to go into characters very much, because i thought they did a wonderful job as their roles.

    Some of the people left the theater with groans of displeasure and i can understand why, but i really did rather enjoy it. i'd watch it again for sure.

    Overall i give "Oculus" an 8.5 /10
    definitely worth a watch for "true horror" fans.

  • Larry | April 24, 2014 9:14 PMReply

    Didn't like it. You could see the ending coming from a mile away. Also, why are horror movies populated by incredibly stupid people?

  • Bryce | April 20, 2014 12:03 AMReply

    It was very hard to follow between their past and present, the ending was terrible. Other than that every thing else was alright.

  • Miranda | June 19, 2014 6:57 PM

    Sir, I love you. You're the only person with any sense on this ridiculous thread.

  • Erin | April 18, 2014 6:24 PMReply

    Just saw it last night - It seemed like a mix of The Shining and The Conjuring, but harder to follow. The way it skipped around felt a little ADD; but I will admit I left the theater feeling very unsettled. I'd give it a B+...I liked the ending.

  • dorjee | April 14, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    Oculus is the worse movie of the century, it was a waste of money, time and energy. many people left during the show. not just me all ma frds are complaining about it. if you are planning to go than i suggest you should not to watch this movies. no horor, no story,complete confusion and mix up of past and present through out the movie which torture your mind and put you in complete misery

  • Bridgette | June 25, 2014 10:15 PM

    I just thought the ending was to predictable. The going to the past and present was a little confusing but i do not believe it was scary. They could've made it a better movie.

  • Miranda | June 19, 2014 7:00 PM

    I completely agree with you. It WAS the worst movie of this whole entire century. It was ridiculously confusing, and whoever made this movie should die.

  • Cf077 | April 25, 2014 4:40 AM

    Getting confused is kinda the point of a psychological horror film don't you think? Youre supposed to leave the theater with an uneasy feeling and i thought this movie did that quite well. The film has a story, it's explained twice. We literally watch the story behind it being told. The horror youre probably used to would be the stuff like friday the 13th or paranormal activity. there's a story to be told and this movie does it well if you actually watch it and pay attention.

  • Jen | April 11, 2014 12:02 PMReply

    A few of my friends saw this at TIFF in 2013 and have been raving about it ever since, and they're still talking about it. I really hope it come to Toronto or goes to Netflix. I haven't seen any really scary haunted house movies in years!

  • Jack | April 11, 2014 7:14 AMReply

    Isn't this film in wide release? Your little blurb at the bottom says it is opening in NY/LA.