Film Review Horror

Beware the Curse of the Film Review: Oculus

April 11, 2014Ben MK

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Who's the scariest of them all?

By Ben Mk

Fear can stem from anywhere and anything. Sometimes, it's justifiable; other times, it's completely irrational; but sometimes — as in the case of spectrophobia, otherwise known as the fear of mirrors — it's because we've seen too many damn horror movies. Whether or not you have a superstitious bone in your body, if you grew up watching the film Candyman, then it's likely that it put the fear of mirrors in you. But after over two decades of waiting for a cinematic successor, a worthy contender has finally emerged — and its name is Oculus.

Oculus taps into a tried-and-true staple of the horror genre — revisited time and time again by movies like The Ring and The Possession — with its tale of a cursed object called the Lasser Glass. As the heroine of the film, Kaylie Russell (Doctor Who's Karen Gillan), tells it, the mirror owes its moniker to its first unfortunate owner, a man named Philip Lasser — who, incidentally, was found burnt to death in his own fireplace. Since then, it has reputedly been to blame for at least forty-five deaths over the course of its four-hundred-year-long recorded existence. And the source of its malevolence appears to be a supernatural entity, which claims its victims by manipulating their thoughts and compelling them to commit horrifying acts. Kaylie knows this because she's done her research — and because eleven years earlier, she and her younger brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), witnessed the terrifying power of the Lasser Glass firsthand, on the night their parents (played by Rory Cochrane and Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff) were killed.

The trouble is, no one else shares her beliefs. So in order to prove it (and to kill the entity that lives in the mirror), she's concocted an experiment — the culmination of the eleven years she's spent hunting down the mirror since that fateful night. She's devoted nearly half her life to the cause, even going so far as to land a job at Dumont Auction House, just so she could use its resources to track down the mirror. And now — faced not just with the prospect of finally being able to destroy the entity, but also with the timely release of her brother from St. Aidan's Mental Facility, where he's spent the past eleven years trying to recover from the psychological trauma caused by the events of that night — her plans have finally come to fruition.

As Tim reunites with Kaylie at their childhood home — where he helps her mount the Lasser Glass in the same place it hung eleven years earlier — Kaylie details her plan for drawing out the entity and killing it. And it all hinges on a series of safeguards she's put in place — including multiple cameras (to objectively document events as they unfold), alarms set to go off at regular intervals (to prevent them from falling victim to the mirror's influence), and a "kill switch" (rigged to swing the pointed tip of a massive metal anchor into the mirror, should they be unable to manually reset the timer every thirty minutes). At first, the experiment seems to be for naught. But what appears to be a futile exercise soon turns into a grueling fight for survival. And before the night is over, Kaylie and Tim will learn the true power of the entity they've dared to challenge.

Based on co-writer/director Mike Flanagan's acclaimed 2005 short film of the same name, Oculus may hit some of the same story beats, but Flanagan has no trouble expanding his 32-minute short into a 105-minute feature and maintaining the film's brooding and suspenseful atmosphere for its entire duration. Dispensing with the buildup that usually prefaces "cursed object" films, the movie wastes no time in introducing audiences to the mirror and the lore behind it. In fact, we learn everything we need to know about the history of the Lasser Glass early on, through Kaylie's terse monologue, rather than through the kind of drawn-out first and second act sequences that typify the genre. You can attribute that narrative decision to budgetary constraints, or you can call it efficient storytelling; but either way, it works, benefiting the story with a sleekness and an efficacy that's absent from some of its genre brethren.

But with the bulk of the film devoted to the confrontation between Kaylie, Tim and the entity — and without the element of surprise that comes from maintaining an air of mystery about their supernatural antagonist — is it still possible for the film to deliver on the scares? The answer is a resounding yes; because more than anything, Oculus is a lesson in psychological terror. Like the Hell that the mirror subjects its victims to, the experience of the film is all about questioning reality; and Flanagan is apt at structuring the narrative around that theme. By alternating between the story's two main timelines and setting up scenario after disturbing scenario to keep the audience guessing about the truth of the situation, not only does the film guarantee our investment in the pair's journey to find closure for their pain — it ensures that you won't be prepared for its gut-punching twist ending, whether you see it coming or not.

The Bottom Line

Once Oculus grabs a hold of you, it doesn't let go. Narratively compelling, visually haunting and unnerving from start to finish, it's one of the best genre films to come along in recent years. With a genuinely creepy atmosphere that puts it in the same league as modern horror classics like The Ring and The Conjuring, and a shocker of an ending, it's one horror movie you'll definitely want to watch with both eyes open. [★★★★]

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