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Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: Oculus

Horror is a tough genre for casual fans. It's difficult to watch a horror film without feeling like you're either being tricked or you saw it coming. I believe one of the reasons the genre is such a minefield is because the plots are incredibly formulaic, not unlike romantic comedies: the movies are striving to create a feeling, rather than to tell a story. Typical romantic comedies have basic plots that can be summed up in a few lines and are largely vehicles for the pine-worthy leads and Hollywood personalities. Typical, formulaic horror stories have very basic plots that largely operate as vehicles for scare tactics. 

Ostensibly, Oculus is the same. Here's the elevator pitch: a mirror causes its onlookers to view a distorted reality, historically causing events that leave its owners dead. Two siblings set out on a mission to prove the mirror has supernatural characteristics by recording themselves in its presence over the course of an evening. Bad things happen. 

I don't think it would have looked like much on paper, but Oculus has some refreshing surprises. The story wasn't particularly novel, yet the story delivery was somewhat surprising. Oculus flashes back and forth between two timelines: The first of which, in 2003, we see a family of four, the Russells, moving into their new home. 10 years later, we see siblings Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (Breton Thwaites) are still recovering from the events that occurred in their youth, which left their parents dead. The flashes back and forth are initially spread apart, and as the story moves forward, they become more frequent and mixed. 

The second surprise of this movie was its look at the unreliable narrator. As the name "Oculus" indicates, a good portion of the movie is spent looking at the way things are viewed. In the present-day story, Tim has just been released from a mental facility after struggling to accept that he shot his father after seeing him kill their mother in 2003. Tim has convinced himself he was at fault for his actions, but his sister Kaylie immediately reminds him that the mirror had possessed them all. As Kaylie rehashes everything the mirror made them see and do, Tim comes up with logical explanations for her memories. When he agrees to help Kaylie observe their behavior in front of the mirror, the use of cameras and recording devices shows the audience the discrepancy between their reality and what they believe to be happening. 

Minute-for-minute, Oculus actually has fewer jumps and surprising moments than most horror films. There are a few "gotcha" musical cues, but on the whole the movie stays away from cheap tricks. Oculus tends to lean more towards psychological drama and avoids the use of over-the-top, graphic content. 

All that said, Oculus isn't without issues. Unfortunately a primary draw for this movie ended up being its biggest weakness: Karen Gillan. Known by most geek fans as Amy Pond from Doctor Who, Gillan takes a lead role in this film, where she tries two new things: horror and an American accent. Unfortunately doing both at once was just too much. Gillan's accent wavered in and out, often landing somewhere between Scottish and robot.

Geek fans may also recognize Kaylie's mother, Marie, played by Katee Sackhoff (also known as Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica). Fortunately, Sackhoff plays her role much more convincingly, and I'm impressed by the fact that the two biggest names in this movie are female. The adult male leads are played by lesser-known actors Breton Thwaites and Rory Cochrane, who hold up their roles, but ironically the strongest performers in Oculus are child actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who play young Kaylie and Tim. 

In addition to the weakness in the acting department, Oculus also left me a little unsatisfied in the end: it plays with some interesting ideas about the unreliable narrator and our perception of events, but ultimately reverts back to a standard horror story. It was still worthwhile, but it felt like it was close to being a much more unusual kind of tale. 

Overall, Oculus is likely going to be one of the better horror films we see in 2014, and I appreciated its fresh take. I give it a B. 
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