Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Oculus (2014)

Oculus (2014)

Oculus is the best new horror movie I've seen in a long while. It doesn't have a lot of "big" scares, but it more than makes up for that with an original story and a near-constant sense of dread that is consistently ratcheted up as the film goes on. It takes a standard haunting story and takes it in a lot of unexpected directions that will constantly keep you questioning just what exactly you saw on screen, helped by great performances and direction that manages to make seemingly mundane activities terrifying. Blumhouse scores another home run with this, up there with Insidious and Sinister as one of their best films.

The story: eleven years ago, adolescent siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell watched their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) lock up, torture, and eventually murder his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff) before Tim took his gun and shot him. Now, the grown-up Kaylie (Karen Gillan) seeks to prove what she had long suspected: that Alan had been under the corrupting influence of an old mirror that had been hanging in his office, which she feels makes people see and hear things that shouldn't be there. Tim (Brenton Thwaites), having just been released from a psych ward, is skeptical, feeling that Kaylie is obsessed with the mirror and with trying to prove that he and Alan weren't murderers; he feels that he's come to grips with what he did, and that it's time for Kaylie to do the same.

Here's where things start to deviate from your standard haunted house horror flick. All the way to the end, there is always a solid case to be made that the skeptic is, in fact, correct. Kaylie isn't exactly portrayed as the most level-headed horror heroine, with her recounting of the mysterious deaths associated with the mirror diving straight into the obsessive in both her details and her tone, vindicating Tim's concerns and making the audience wonder if she's simply insane. (And props to Karen Gillan for managing to make this questionable, is-she-or-isn't-she craziness convincing. Girl doesn't just look like a redheaded, Scottish Jennifer Lawrence, she's got some of her chops too.) Most of the "hauntings" over the course of the film can be (and are, by Tim) easily explained as delusions, with the characters misremembering things that they think they saw happen -- and, by extension, what we think we saw happen. When Tim starts to "believe", it's not in the mirror's power, it's in the idea that he's losing his mind just as he thinks Kaylie has done. Until the final reel, you have to wonder: was the real evil in the film the mirror, or Kaylie and Tim's insanity?

It's a very hard question to answer, because even if the mirror is evil, it doesn't work by unleashing boogeymen. Rather, it messes with the perception of the people around it, causing them to think they heard something different from what was actually said, or mistake a lightbulb for a nice, juicy apple, or imagine ghosts that aren't there. In short, it works by driving its victims insane and getting them to kill themselves and others. Again, this makes it impossible to truly know if what you're seeing on screen is actually what is happening. Every time Kaylie and Tim think they've found a foolproof way to "beat" the mirror's tricks, be it by filming it with three cameras running on battery power, using their iPhone cameras to tell if what they're seeing in front of them is real or an illusion, or by hanging a giant weight that will smash the mirror if they don't reset a timer (i.e. if they're too dead to reset it), the mirror always outsmarts them, often in ways that even I didn't see coming (even though, in hindsight, I really should have). It's the Rule of Hans Gruber as applied to a supernatural horror movie: make the villain the smartest character in the whole film, and it's that much more nail-biting when the heroes go up against him, her, or it.

And the result is consistently creepy. This is a film that excels at building tension into a rising tide of dread that sweeps over every frame, starting slow but becoming unstoppable once it gets rolling. There are relatively few jump scares on display, but that actually works to the benefit of this atmosphere, never releasing the tension early and instead letting it keep growing into a monster in its own right. It's like a dominatrix, constantly denying viewers the sweet release of a "boo!" and keeping them on edge all the way into the third act when things really hit the fan for our heroes. It helps that, alongside the scares, we get a genuinely gripping story that alternates between the present day and when Kaylie and Tim were young, watching the breakdown of their family and their father's descent into madness. This film doesn't just go for the supernatural to frighten viewers, it also exploits all-too-human evils that further empower its main font of terror, the question of just how much of this is purely the mirror's doing.

The only complaint I could realistically raise about this film is that, after all that buildup, the ending didn't quite live up to what had come before. It's nasty what happens, yes, and it nicely resolves the story, but in comparison to films like Insidious and Sinister that saved the best for last, the ending of Oculus felt somewhat anti-climatic in terms of releasing all that tension. Really, it's the only thing that keeps me from calling this film a true horror masterpiece, keeping it in the slightly lesser realm of "really damn good" instead.

Score: 4 out of 5

Ending aside, this is an outstanding horror movie that takes big risks that pay off handsomely. See it.

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