Originally published in The Aerial June 2014 edition.
|Horror film has been in a slump as of late, and the only ones that have stood out in recent memory are V/H/S/2, You’re Next, Thirst, Pontypool, and The House of the Devil. It is a sad state for the horror film scene, and as time goes by the more disgraceful the genre seems to get (e.g. the Saw and Paranormal Activity series, The Thing remake, any of the Haunted House movies, the recent Romero films...).
Then here comes Oculus. A brand new IP with a unique concept, it is being released at film festivals, has critics calling it a horror masterpiece, and has a cool collection of producers. Color me interested.
The film centers around Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and Alan Russell (Brenton Thwaites.) The two are brother and sister, and after 10 years Alan, now 21, is released from a state penitentiary for killing his psychotic, murderous father in self defense. Kaylie believes that a possessed demon mirror was the cause for their father’s insanity and wants to destroy is once for all, while Alan believes her mind has made up the story as way to cope with the tragedy.
The set up is pretty great, and for a while the script keeps on your toes wondering if the mirror is really evil. I wish it kept of this aspect of psychological horror longer because very quickly it went from “Who is telling the truth?” to “Yep, the mirror is full blown crazy.” Everything up to that point is enjoyable and spooky, but after it the film hits a snag of boredom and predictability.
The film is directed by Mike Flanagan who you have not heard because the only other films he has made are Absentia (2011) and the short film Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan (2006), which would later be remade into Oculus.
Oculus stars Karen Gillan from Doctor Who fame who plays Kaylie Russel, Australian soap opera star Brenton Thwaites who plays Alan Russell, along with a handful of supporting actors and Kaylie and Alan’s child versions. For this film I was pleasantly surprised by Karen Gillan’s acting.
Throughout the film, it switches from the present to the past in quick and sometimes disorienting jump cuts. The actual technical skill for these edits is impressive. Many times in a time change, the camera will stay in the same position but the small props, actors and lighting will change. In the trailer and in the early points of the film, it seems like these cuts are meant to reveal deeper connections between characters and show the power between brother and sister during traumatic points of life. In fact, for a large portion of the film it felt like it was building towards the idea of what happens when a family falls apart. It such a huge missed opportunity on the filmmakers part, though, because eventually the film gets lost in cheap scares and progressively less impressive jump cuts.
It feels like most effort was put into the first half of the film. This is for mainly two reasons. First, early on there are some really cool shots and camera angles. For example, when Kaylie finds the mirror in a storage room she walks up to it and stares at in delight and anxiety. Instead of having the camera behind her facing the mirror or the the side, the camera brought up and behind the mirror so it looks like it towers over her and you can still see her face. Even though this is not outstanding camera work, it shows that the crew was trying to be different and interesting.
The second reason is when Kaylie is showing Alan the mirror.. During this, she looks into her cameras to explain the dark history of the mirror and the process for the night. This scene is the standout moment for the film because it is given time to flesh itself out, and at this point is when I felt the most drawn into the characters and story.
The rest of the film is lost a limbo of over-editing, predictability, and lack of spookiness. Many of the characters’ acting turns into the equivalent of talking bricks. This is especially true for Thwaites’ character, who was not an interesting character to start with and becomes even duller as the story progresses. Except for the final scene, which is actually fantastic, the rest of the film is a slog.
The plot also reaches a dead end quickly and becomes less about the present siblings, and more about the past family. The problem with the family’s story (except for the child acting which was nice) is it ultimately does not matter because you have been ham-fistedly handed their fate since the opening scene of the film. The viewer knows what will happen to them, and for a horror movie you need surprises to keep people invested.
In conjunction with surprises, let’s talk about jump scares in film. Jump scares do not make movies scary, or show how masterful an actor or director is, and they should not be used liberally. The last third of Oculus is packed with jump scares, and in places that are not appropriate to have one. At one point a character is shot and it is supposed to be emotional, but the whole scene is hurt because it was set off by a jump scare. Jump scares should be at most the crescendo of suspense, and usually at the end of jump scares a new tone should be set by a new scene. It makes no sense to have be used as a transition for the second half of an already unmoving scene.
The film also tries to use interesting lighting when Gillan’s character uses electric lanterns to light the entire house. In this part of the film, the majority of blue lighting is obviously not coming from the lamps. If Kubrick could use candles for all the lighting in Barry Lyndon, why could Flanagan not use electric lanterns for 10 minutes of screen time?
Finally, the producers, who I thought would add spice to the film, came from Insidious and Paranormal Activity. I was excited to see some of awesome imagery of Insidious and the painful suspense of Paranormal Activity, but lets just say I was mistaken. The film always looks bland, sounds bland, and feels bland.
The worst thing you can say about a horror film is that it is not scary. Most disappointingly, Oculus is definitely not scary. There are many reasons for this, but it mostly come down to the film’s production. There is simply too much editing, transitions, and constantly changing camera angles. Suspense has to be built and allowed to simmer and fester, and whenever you have cut you could be jeopardizing the suspense.
Oculus in completion is a disappointment. It is not terrible, but it is lacking anything to make it stand out. It just feels forgettable, bland, and - worst of all - not at all scary.