Siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell hold a deep dark family secret. When they were children their mother was murdered by their father, in front of them, and then he killed himself. After spending an extensive amount of time in a mental institution Tim is ready to take on the world again, however sister Kaylie still has issues about their past. It is on this basis that Mike Flanagan builds his story which interweaves elements of the supernatural against the backdrop of sibling relationships. Kaylie blames a strange mirror for the deaths, spending her time researching the horrible history that hides behind what has now become known as the Lasser Glass; it would seem all of the previous owners succumbed to vile and unexplained deaths. Tim is not convinced, he feels that his sister needs to let go of their past. With Kaylie intent of proving the mystery of the Lasser Glass the two find themselves holed up in their family home with the mirror which may or may not hold a malignant force. As past memories resurface, and the two argue out their own version of events it would seem anything is possible. As the tension within the house builds to catastrophic proportions will the siblings find out the real truth behind their parent’s death?
Indie Director Mike Flanagan follows up his cult hit Absentia with Oculus- both films have seen audiences polarised in opinion. The concept for this feature length film came from an award winning short ‘Oculus : Chapter 3- The Man with a Plan’, produced in 2006 which featured a similar concept based around a single person narrative. Flanagan builds on these concepts in his script for Oculus to open up the playing field encompassing family relationships rather than the individual. In doing so the director shows a real flair for establishing a complex and interesting plot line from quite a simple underlying concept.
Flanagan drafts in Dr. Who star Karen Gillan as the headstrong Kaylie Russell. Gillan gives a convincing performance and makes for a strong lead despite her relatively young age, stealing the show from Brenton Thwaites as brother Tim. Thwaites is capable enough but Gillan outshines him in every scene; although this could be down to script rather than his acting ability and Tim generally seems like the weaker character. Annalise Basso leading as the young Kaylie again puts in a commendable performance, with younger brother Tim, played by Garrett Ryan being upstaged by his female counterpart. Less convincing is Rory Cochrane as father Alan Russell- who incidentally bears a peculiar resemblance to Brit actor and professional cockney Danny Dyer, a point which was distracting on a mild level. Russell fails to produce a strong level of menace throughout although does a reasonable enough job and given the strong performances of the lead this becomes a minor factor. Katee Sackhoff as mother Marie Russell fairs slightly better infusing some strong scenes with emotional intensity.
Key to the success of Oculus is the fluid narrative which straddles two places in time. Sometimes those places intersect and blend into one. The brilliant editing skills Flanagan brings to the fore ensures the developing plot remains cohesive and structured. Flashbacks to the past mingle with current events in a clever construction, making for a disconcerting and often mind-bending watch. What lets the film down are two factors, the rumbling ever present ‘score’- do people not use music anymore?- which serves as a device to almost remind the audience to be scared, and some scattering of ropey CGI techniques in ghostly figures with shiny eyes. However given the limited locations- mainly events revolve around one house- and tiny cast involved, the production values exploit most factors to great effect; thus making the feature feel a lot bigger than it actually is. There are some interesting uses of lighting techniques as well to ensure a brooding atmosphere. While the star of the show, the mirror, has a striking design and serves well as an ominous presence.
Oculus is one of those films that will not impress everyone. If you look at the promotional trailer it becomes apparent that this film has been marketed as a jump scare/cattle prod offering- when in fact it is nothing of the sort and for those expecting such a film then disappointment will ensue. It would seem this film has divided opinion, with some loathing the lack of thrill scare tactics, while others have lapped up the cerebral and brooding approach to building the narrative. Oculus is slow building- although it does appear to start off in James Wan The Conjuring territory- but quickly moves to an entirely different method of constructing the scares. Using the clever plot device of past and present colliding, tension builds in the narrative- at times to almost stifling proportions- as the siblings unravel secrets from their past. As the truth becomes manipulated and no one can be sure what they are seeing is real the story becomes a hotbed of confusion, and dread. On this front while the film borrows in some part- owing a small debt to The Shining, with some obvious nods- it is also innovative and refreshing. As each revelation arrives new depth is given to the main storyline as it picks up momentum travelling to a crashing climax. Some may lack the patience for such a subtle pacing in the first third, while others may be put off by the perplexing nature of the plot; for this reviewer Oculus represented an all too rare opportunity for some thought provoking horror. The film is- if you let it- one of those films which can provoke further discussion, and a chance to really immerse yourself in the fantastical elements. Flanagan successfully breathes an omnipresent feeling of unease and atmosphere into his tale that makes for an enriching experience if you are willing to give it a chance.