Next in the series (not really) of 2013 films that I completely missed due to my inaccurate presumptions about how much I might like/dislike them… Oculus! I blame the advertising. I tuned out after the “from the producers of Paranormal Activity” in the trailer. Not that PA was bad. In fact, I had a lot of fun when I saw the first one in theaters. I appreciated the audience’s terrified reactions to such simple, low-budget scares. But fun does not make a film great. And besides, we’ve been inundated with “from the producers of Paranormal Activity” since PA did so well at the box office. They can’t all be winners. I just incorrectly assumed that this one was a non-winner.
Oculus tells the story of Kaylie (Karan Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), siblings whose parents apparently went murderously insane under the influence of an evil antique mirror. One parent ended up killing the other before being killed by one of the kids. Fast-forward a decade (give or take) and the adult Tim is being released from the insane asylum where he’s been brainwashed by psychologists (damn psychologists! right, mr. cruise?) into finally accepting that he made up all of the “my parents went crazy because of a haunted mirror” stuff in order to cope with the tragedy. Mere minutes out of the institution, his big sister tells Tim she needs his help to destroy the haunted mirror! It was all real! Or was it? Kaylie is going to try to prove it was before she rids the world of the cursed object.
On the surface, Oculus is just another entry into the crowded catalog of horror seat fillers. Competent but generic cinematography. Young, beautiful actors acting just well enough. Uninspired spooky premise (haunted thing). And pedestrian direction. Now, all that sounds harsh, I know. And it all holds true for Oculus, but the film manages to bring something interesting to the table nonetheless. That something is Kaylie. The character is awesome. She’s spent the last 11 years passing for someone without severe PTSD and an insatiable drive to kill a mirror. She’s organized and committed to her goal. When she is reunited with her brother, she picks up right where they left off. They are going to kill that goddamned mirror! And she definitely has a fighting chance. She’s thought of every contingency and she’s even built in a “dead man’s switch” for insuring the mirror gets what’s coming to it even if she and her brother die. She’s pretty badass and her plan of attack is exactly what you would expect from someone who’s spent 11 years plotting revenge. Her character has enough depth for us to build her a backstory without lengthy exposition. It’s a beautiful thing. Her brother can’t help but get caught up in her obsessively planned and researched mission despite his doubts and misgivings. Before you get too pumped though, keep in mind that she’s going up against a mirror. An inanimate object that doesn’t shoot lasers or act as a portal to another dimension or anything like that. It’s a mirror that fucks with people’s heads. So, instead of a super-heroine, we get a super-prepared heroine. That’s not a bad thing. Scenes of the mirror’s effects (presently and in flashbacks) on the characters are chilling enough to move the story along and keep us engaged. The brain is a mysterious thing to us laypersons, so it is entirely plausible that someone could be unaware of what they are doing and/or remember things incorrectly to their own detriment. We buy it enough to enjoy the ride. And that’s all we ask of our beloved genre films, isn’t it?
THE FINAL CUT: Under its generic, middling exterior, Oculus is better-than-average haunt story. Karen Gillan’s whip-smart Kaylie is a rare gem among wide release horror films.