MIFF 2014 Review: Oculus (2014) — The Evil Antique That Doesn’t Deliver in Horror Fizzer


The psychological horror film Oculus tells two parallel stories: The first is set in 2002, where a family move into a new house with new furnishings; including an ornate, antique mirror. Slowly the demonic mirror starts to take a mental toll on the parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), leading to the deaths of both, with the 10-year old Tim accused of the heinous murders. 11 years later, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from psychiatric care, convinced that the mirror played no part in what happened to his parents. Little does he know that his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent the past decade researching the mirror, waiting for her brother’s return so that she can finally destroy it and redeem her family’s legacy.

"I need the optometrist, first thing in the morning."

“I need the optometrist, first thing in the morning.”

Oculus is based on the 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan, which is also the brainchild of writer/director Mike Flanagan. I haven’t seen the short, but I can only imagine that the premise of Oculus works so much better as a short than a feature. The movie isn’t bad, it just doesn’t have enough substance, scares, or relatable characters. I found all the 2002 scenes to be better than the 2013 ones; the 2002 storyline has a solid structure and some genuinely gruesome moments, but when the plot switches to 2013, I feel that the tone becomes almost farcical. Because the two stories are being told simultaneously, whenever I start to feel an attachment to the 2002 plot, we cut back to 2013, which drops whatever tension was developed the prior tale.

It’s a low-key affair, with a focus on the dread of an evil mirror as opposed to outright shocks and gore. Interviews with Flanagan express his interest in the stories of HP Lovecraft; tales of horrific things that can’t be explained, the hidden evils of the world, and the insanity brewing in man. Flanagan fails in this pursuit, as Oculus is strictly surface level, and doesn’t achieve the dread and insanity that Lovecraft created. If anything, the psychotic events that the characters encounter amount to nothing more than red-herrings and fake-outs. Cheap stuff.

The story is solid, but the script doesn’t do it justice, and there is a scene is this film that is unabashedly 20 minutes of exposition. The set-up is that Kaylie is preparing the cameras and filling in the backstory and history of the mirror for whoever will be viewing the footage later, to legitimise her families plight. She is also filling in the mirror’s history for her brother. She is also, most importantly, filling in the mirror’s history for the audience. They try to mask it with flashbacks and a rapid pace, but it’s still just an elaborate exposition sequence, one that Karen Gillan plays with so much ham that I think she started oinking. One thing I do appreciate is that they never reveal the origin of the mirror’s power, it’s left completely ambiguous and the film is better for not answering those questions.

The 2 main actors, plus Brenton Thwaites.

The two main actors, plus Brenton Thwaites.

The acting quality is scattered. I did enjoy the flashback performances of Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane, their slow descent into antique-related madness was visually impressive and extremely menacing. I was also impressed with the children’s performances during the 2002 scenes. Normally kids in horror movies are average, but Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan did a fine job of selling the mayhem. I had less of a great time with their older counterparts played by Gillan and Brenton Thwaites. Gillan seemed unable to handle the film’s tone and Thwaites was just terrible (with bad Dawson’s Creek hair and Dawson’s Creek-level acting chops). The acting in horror movies is never normally of a high standard so this is not a huge surprise.

The ending of the film is gratuitously left open for a sequel, and because it appears to be made with a relatively low-budget and has achieved modest success, I would indeed expect more movies from the evil mirror. Hopefully next time Flanagan can produce something a little more focused, because the premise still has a lot of potential for some great movies.

If this were a direct-to-DVD horror film, perhaps I’d be less critical, but unfortunately someone actually thought Oculus this was of high enough quality to be a part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s to the film’s detriment, as if this were promoted as the mid-tier horror film that it is, expectations would be justifiably lower.

Llama Score: 4Oculus is an average horror film, disguised as a prestige horror of a higher standard. The acting quality is patchy, the plot is unfocused and often silly, and there’s just not enough on show to make it rise above mediocrity. It’s worth a single watch, but will benefit from low expectations.


Highlights Banner

– The apple/light-globe trade-off was pretty great.

Lowlights Banner

– No real scares beyond cheap jump scares.

– I wasn’t invested in the performances of Gillan and Thwaites.

– The flashback scenes were set in 2002, and I’m sure I saw the children playing linked Sega Game Gear consoles, which were released ten years prior. That doesn’t make any sense! It was all Game Boy Advance by that stage!

Further Viewing Banner

– Mirrors

– The Conjuring

– Sinister

Order Oculus from Amazon — Available now!

Directed by: Mike Flanagan Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard Produced by: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy, Jason Blum Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff Distributed by: Relativity Media Run length: 103 minutes Australian Release: Limited (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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