Those of us that have fallen in love with that all encompassing and endlessly debatable genre we call "horror" are the most masochistic people in all of fandom. No matter how many times we leave a movie theater disappointed, no matter how high the number that follows the title of a film we once loved dares to climb before becoming unprofitable (Did you know that they're up to Wrong Turn 6? ) we drag ourselves back again and again, with grim resignation masking a tiny flicker of optimism that no Scary Movie 87 or Carrie remake can extinguish. We go back to the theater, time after time, hoping that, just this once, we won't leave feeling disappointed and $20 poorer than we did two hours earlier. As the end credits rolled on Oculus, the audience let out a collective groan of disapproval and immediately ran for the exits. People bumped and nudged and stumbled into each other, eyes fixed on their phones, as they flocked to Twitter to vocalize their disapproval. I was not one of these people.
Let me preface what I'm about to say with this disclaimer: I am not a film snob. I've seen and loved nearly any low brow gory and disgusting horror movie you can throw at me. I don't require my horror films to challenge me on an intellectual or emotional level, necessarily (read my gushing review of Elvira Mistress of the Dark here: http://geeksout.org/blogs/ranerdin/horror-classics-elvira-mistress-dark-...) That being said, Oculus exists in the somewhat awkward position of being slightly too smart and sophisticated for the audiences that wide release horror films generally draw on opening weekends, while simultaneously still requiring a bit of the suspension of disbelief and tolerance for ridiculousness that is often associated with the genre. It's a strange position to occupy, and the audience responded accordingly. As a point of reference, the same audience that hated this movie laughed and cheered and practically went into hysterics when a dog was squashed from above in the trailer for A Haunted House 2 that played beforehand.
Despite being marketed as such a film, hoping to follow the pattern of recent successes like The Conjuring and The Purge that were made relatively cheaply and relied on the fervor of horror fans to earn back the entire budget in the first couple of days, Oculus is a more cerebral and sophisticated, less visceral and immediate film than others of the last few years. This is not a movie about a haunted mirror that possesses people. Fans of James Wan's recent work may have come out this weekend expecting creepy dolls and jump scares, and although the film isn't above the cheap manipulation of the latter in its first half, there is a lot more going on than demons and hauntings.
Without giving away too much, Oculus is less a story about a haunted mirror and has much more to do with the way we deal with overcoming childhood trauma. Siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) come together after a decade spent apart, each trying to cope with the aftermath of the horrific events of their childhood. While Tim was put through the wringer of being institutionalized and learning to systematically cope with and move beyond the events of the past, Kaylie was left to her own obsessive and meticulous research and kept the events of their youth at the forefront of her mind. Oculus uses these two approaches toward recovery to challenge the viewer to rethink the way that nature of reality, the way that our brains process and store memories, and the subjective nature of individual experience. Using the mirror as a metaphor here not only makes some interesting points about mental illness, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and the far reaching effects that a bad marriage and a broken home can have on young children, but also makes the "true" nature of the mirror ambiguous and, at least to me, somewhat irrelevant. I love a good demonic possession story as much as the next horror fan, but to me this is a much more interesting film than a lot of the recent mixed efforts at recapturing Linda Blair's chilling demonic takeover in The Exorcist. These are the real horrors that we cope with as a species, and although at its core nearly all horror works as symbol and allegory for the struggles of the human experience, Oculus touches these points with particular poignancy.
Oculus is surprisingly well acted for a low budget horror film.. As a big fan of Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) , watching her horror debut was the main draw of this film for me. Sackhoff is an unlikely horror heroine, and seems to be a more comfortable fit for sci-fi/action, but nevertheless makes the genre transition with ease. As was the case with BSG's Starbuck, Sackhoff is at her best when her characters are at their worst, and she takes the role of Kaylie and Tim's mom Marie to effectively scary dark places beyond those of a normal simpering horror movie wife and mother. It's in calmer moments of gentle vulnerability that sometimes I feel like Sackhoff's strength almost works against her -- in the scenes where she is supposed to feel threatened by husband Alan (played solidly if a little too Jack Nicholson-ish by Rory Cochrane) , I always felt like she could easily take him in a fight. Sackhoff always carries a degree of irreverence with her -- if, for instance, she was playing Wendy Torrance opposite Jack Nicholson in some alternate reality version of The Shining, I feel like would laugh in Jack's face as he tried to chase after her with an ax. Still, I actually think the fact that Sackhoff isn't the typical or expected casting for the "scared wife" role actually works to the film's benefit.
The real star of this film, though -- and this surprised me -- is Karen Gillan. Like Sackhoff, Gillan is a name well known to sci-fi fans for her role as Amy Pond. I was never a fan of Gillan before this movie. Unlike Sackhoff, who had the genius of Ronald D Moore behind her, Gillan was backed by Stephen Moffat, who knows more about writing for imagined alien species than he does about writing for women. Gillan officially won me over here, and this is a great role for her. She weaves in and out of smart and secure to damaged and terrifying and back again with ease. This character straddles a tricky line between self aware (she seems somewhat conscious of the genre tropes she is following) and neurotically and obsessively insane, and Gillan manages to pull this off and really owns this character. Although she too may be leaving horror for more intergalactic pastures (next up, Guardians of the Galaxy) , in my opinion she is a welcome addition to our dysfunctional horror family and will always have a spot in our demonic pantheon. To have an actress I didn't like steal this film away from one of my favorite actresses is quite an accomplishment, and I'm excited to see more of her work.
Even both child actors are good, and if you've followed my reviews for a while you know I have very strong feelings about most children in horror films (hint: I don't like them and think they sap all the danger and menace out of scene). That isn't the case here. And although Gillan consistently overshadows Thwaites in all of their scenes together, I think considering the nature and dynamic of sibling relationships, this too actually works in the context of the film.
If all of this sounds a little heady and esoteric, that's the fault of me as a writer rather than of the film itself. There are plenty of cringe worthy moments of gore for those that crave a less cerebral and more guttural theater experience. It's not a perfect film by any means -- many have complained about the pacing (too slow in the first half, too fast in the second) and there are moments where the limitations of time and money poke through, but overall these are minor complaints and don't detract much from the overall impression. I actually really liked the frenetic nature of the film's latter half, and thought it was one of the more interesting approaches I've seen a director use to represent the fractured nature of human psychosis. Director/writer Mike Flanigan should be commended on taking risks and creating a more nuanced and sophisticated film than most mainstream horror fans are used to. It's definitely not a crowd pleaser, but I think fans of psychological horror will find much to enjoy here.
At its best, horror holds up a mirror -- often a grotesque, warped, and twisted funhouse mirror -- to the worst parts of ourselves and challenges us to not look away from the unpleasant things reflected back at us. Oculus uses this metaphor in a better, if somewhat more literal, way than most wide release horror movies I've seen in the last few years. The demons this mirror shows us are our own, and to me that is more important and interesting than the is it/isn't it supernatural question and the ambiguity that seemed to frustrate many viewers here. This is a smart film that works on multiple levels. Despite the fact that you are probably hearing a lot of negativity surrounding it right now, I am strongly recommending it to anyone who prefers the horrors of trauma to the mind over trauma to the body. Bonus points for not being about a creepy doll. Rating: B+