Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Produced by: Marc D. Evans
Screenplay by: Mike Flanagan
Based on: Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan
by Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan
Music by: The Newton Brothers
Cinematography by: Michael Fimognari
Editing by: Mike Flanagan
Studio(s): Blumhouse Productions
Distributed by: Relativity Media
Release date(s): September 8, 2013 (TIFF)
April 11, 2014 (United States)
June 13, 2014 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 103 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $5 million
Box-office revenue: $44, 030, 246
Oculus is a horror film whose central concept sounds like something out of a half-mocking half-homaging grindhouse/exploitation/B-flick from the 1970s: eleven years previously, ten-year-old Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) is taken into custody after being forced to shoot and kill his father (Rory Cochrane) while defending his twelve-year-old sister Kaylie (Annalise Basso) from being attacked by the father, who, seemingly under psychosis induced by an antique mirror has just murdered their mother (Katee Sackhoff). In the present day, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from psychiatric care, having come to believe in his responsibility for the crimes. Kaylie (Karen Gillain), however, has spent much of young adulthood researching the mirror and, as an employee at an auction house, has managed to track it down. She ropes Tim into meeting at their old house, where she reveals the mirror in a room filled with surveillance equipment, so as to document its powers, vindicating a family, and a "killswitch," a weighted anchor attached to the ceiling and on a timer. Got it? Good!
Starting with the good, I have to say, for all the ridiculousness of the central concept (a killer mirror, for Christ sake!), Oculus is an intelligently executed horror film. Writer-director Mike Flanagan expands his own short, in doing so proving that ingenuity and creativity overcome any constraints a film might have otherwise. The solid structure sustains the tension throughout the course of the film, making for some genuinely frightening moments, and his characters are fleshed-out with fully three-dimensional qualities. This is also helped by two strong performances from his lead actors. I think that Karen Gillan is terrific in the central part of Kaylie. As I said, she plays a real character; a strong woman with a steady job and in a relationship which seems less male-dominated as much as equal partnership, what Gillan brings to the part is a determination to unveil the truth which is at times rather powerful. It's proof once again of my theory that oftentimes for female actors the best performances are to be found in genre cinema. Brenton Thwaites' Tim is also key to the story, and as an actor he fits in appropriately. He does a good job of depicting the Doubting Thomas, the voice of reason in the midst of this admittedly absurd endeavour. It is on the strength of his performance that the seeds of doubt are repeatedly planted to great effect. Also, the two young actors, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, are very good as Gillan and Thwaites' younger counterparts. Speaking of great effect, the film is a great example of cinematography and editing working in harmony to play with our heads. Flanagan (yes, he edited the film as well!) cuts the film as such that we are almost uncertain of the legitimacy of the images Michael Fimognari shows us, or whether it's all in the mind of the characters. It's a movie full of seemingly unimportant, yet key details, which could be as little as switching around the odd prop or two (there's one quite horrible moment involving a lightbulb which I won't get into detail about!), but in the whole scheme of things creates a constant aura of palpable dread. As such, when the credits rolled and The Newton Brothers' Oculus Of Glass theme played (an unnerving piece with an unusual beat), I was appropriately haunted by what I had just seen. I don't think it's a masterpiece, and admittedly I haven't seen The Babadook, but this is a consistently intense, intelligent B-flick which plays with your mind and gets under your skin, not satisfied with mere tacky jump-scares, and I am safe to say is the best horror film of 2014.
Now, while I loved Oculus in many regards, I do have to been measured and acknowledge that despite my admiring the film, it's neither a masterpiece or going to end up among my top ten films of the year. I thought long and hard about this, because as far sticking a good horror movie goes, Oculus would be up there, but that's the key thing there. I mentioned in the past about necessary ingredients for a film, specifically screenplays, and I've come to the conclusion that instead of the three parts I originally lined out, it needs four (man, I need to write a book on film theory!): central concept, three-dimensional characters, narrative structure and additional resonance. Oculus has the first three down to a tee, but what it lacks is the latter. Ultimately, I don't feel like I got anything I didn't know before out of it, I didn't look at the world any differently. All of cinema, including films in the supposedly non-artful horror genre, can inform and enlighten, make them take away something from the experience. George Romero's Dead films, even the inferior ones, were all about something, be it racism, consumerism, communication breakdown, dictatorship, the War On Terror etc., the same can be said David Cronenberg and other such masters of horror. Mike Flanagan obviously has a great career ahead of him, but without the additional resonance he could run the risk of continuing to be seen as a good hand.
While I do think it lacks the additional resonance of some of the masterpieces of horror cinema from the likes of George Romero and David Cronenberg, Oculus is still a great horror film and a cracking B-flick. Mike Flanagan overcomes most issues with ingenuity and creativity, and boasts two strong lead performances, particularly Karen Gillan, by actors playing proper characters. The cinematography and editing work in harmony to play with our heads in this movie, a composite made up of so many little details. It's a haunting piece of work which I glad to call the best horror film of 2014.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.4/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Pumped (I love being busy and being in good enough shape to handle this much energy pumping through my body!)