Published on April 15th, 2014 | by Alexa Joy1
Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the scariest horror movie of them all? Hint: while it’s somewhat effectively crafted, it’s not the story-anemic Oculus.
Based on a short film by director Mike Flanagan, Oculus is a horror movie about childhood terrors coming back to roost. It’s a film that banks on atmosphere over jump scares, which is usually a good thing for those that enjoy a ‘thinking person’s horror film.’ Unfortunately, Oculus doesn’t always handle its own central ideas well enough to work to great effect.
Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillian from Doctor Who fame) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) lose their parents at a young age after a tragic event tied to a mysterious mirror. Having been blamed for the killing of his father when he was 8, Tim is released from a mental institute on his twenty-first birthday. Kaylie gets up to no good, bringing the mirror from an auction house to prove that it has supernatural properties and demolish whatever is possessing it. (Though, one might point out that videotaping the mirror instead of wrecking it outright quickly leads to coming under its grasp again — why would such a smart character be so stupid? Other than the fact that there’d be no movie without this sloppiness, of course).
There are a few things like this that don’t add up, for example, a lack of explanation as to what’s happening on the other side of the mirror, or what exactly started the possession. Are they just being overly vague to seem more mysterious? Or are they purposefully withholding story points in the first film so they can do a money-grabbing sequel? It seems plainly obvious that they’re setting this up to lead to a sequel, like the Insidious series did. Either way, the theme feels a bit tired; after all, it has been done before — a typical, everyday object getting turned into a horror movie. Mirrors are creepy, we get it. We played Bloody Mary when we were kids.
The film succeeds on certain levels; for example, the acting is excellent. Karen Gillian and Annalisa Basso do a fabulous job of representing past and present Kaylie. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff, who shows immense passion towards her character’s story arc, plays the mother.
Cinematically, there were well thought out shots of the mirror. Every time we see it in relation to people it’s from a POV that looks down on them, suggesting that the mirror is massive, intimidating, and that whatever’s inside of it is much larger than life. Another really interesting camera/editing move was the twinning effect of past and future characters in the same room, which was very effective in blending contrasting timelines in the film.
Sound is something that is often stereotypical in a horror flick: lots of loud sudden noises and background music that swell with the story to let you know it’s a scary moment. While this was sometimes the case with Oculus, it was the foley work that really stood out to me. The sound effects created when characters are eating ceramic or glass objects were used effectively. During a scene where two women munch on sharp objects, the sound (not to mention the makeup) is so realistic you can’t help but cringe at the phantom feeling in your own mouth.
So, if I have so many good things to say about the movie, why am I ultimately not recommending it? Oculus is often not the sum of its parts — it is beautifully put together, but lacking in story. So even with great acting and some truly chilling sound effects, I just couldn’t get into the slow-moving, story-deficient film. This lack of depth takes away from the horror factor — it’s missing the ‘story’ part of the scary campfire story. And if the plan is indeed to let more of the mythos unfold in a sequel, then I say that the viewer shouldn’t have to rely on a money-grabbing second movie just to understand the original. Each movie should stand on its own. Ultimately, being afraid to walk to your car after a scary movie is a sure sign of a horror film’s success — but unfortunately, no feeling of dread stalked me through the parking lot as I left the theatre that night.