Sunday, April 20, 2014

Haunted House Horror Comes Through The Mirror: Oculus Remains Very Basic Suspense Fare.

The Good: Most of the acting is actually quite good, Characters are fairly smart
The Bad: Very predictable plot and effect elements.
The Basics: Karen Gillan and Annalise Basso carry a mediocre horror concept to a decent execution as Kaylie Russell witnesses the degradation of her father’s mental state at the hands of a possessed mirror and, eleven years later, tries to prove the mirror was behind his (and other people’s) dementia.

Last weekend, I was pretty surprised when the weekend box office race was resolved. I was not at all surprised that Captain America: The Winter Soldier held off Rio 2 to keep the top slot at the box office. No, like the producers of Draft Day, who were betting on Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner’s ability to open a movie, I was shocked when a film called Oculus made the third-place slot. The film, which was co-produced (inexplicably enough for a film that has nothing to do with World Wrestling Entertainment) by WWE Studios, is a horror film that stars Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame. Was Oculus launched into third place by Whovians hoping to see Gillan in an American horror film where odds are the camp factor might involve some t&a that the BBC does not allow? That guess is as good as any for how a horror film more suited to a September or February release scored as high on the charts at the outset of Summer Blockbuster Season.

Fans hoping for American horror t&a content will find Oculus lacking. While there is plenty of Gillan’s bouncy hair, cute smile, and wide eyes, such is as far as it goes on the objectifying women front and for those who want that sort of thing, they shall have to look elsewhere. Instead, Oculus is a creepy horror movie that appears to be about a haunted house or possessed mirror for much of the film. Gillan plays Kaylie Russell, a young woman who is determined to scientifically prove a supernatural phenomenon comes from a mirror that was once in her family’s possession.

Opening with Tim getting released from St. Aiden’s mental hospital on the same day that his sister Kaylie is working an auction of artifacts, most significantly a mirror with a small crack in the corner, the brother and sister are reunited. Kaylie tells Tim that she has been working to keep a promise to Tim, a promise that apparently involves killing someone or something. Flashing back to ten years prior, Kaylie and Tim are playing in their house when the same mirror is being moved in by their mother. After inspecting (and talking to) the mirror, Kaylie asks Tim to meet her at “the” house, which has been abandoned since the incident that led to Tim getting sent to St. Aiden’s. Setting up cameras, recording devices, and a killswitch, Kaylie details the history of the mirror on camera . . . which appears to be a source of evil that has led to about 45 murders over its history.

While Tim is convinced that their father was simply a murderer, Kaylie is certain that the mirror is supernatural, which is backed up by Tim’s inability to attempt to smash the mirror. The experiment puts Tim and Kaylie at odds with one another and when Tim sets free the dog that Kaylie is using as a final control variable, creepy things begin to occur that vindicate her. The cameras within the room move, the plants die, and the temperature in the room changes abruptly. Replaying the tapes, Tim and Kaylie see themselves doing things they do not remember doing. Kaylie becomes determined to expose and defeat the force within the mirror . . . even as it takes hold of her and Tim!

Oculus is a psychological horror that blends with a supernatural horror. The essential question in the film is “did a supernatural force from the mirror compel Alan to kill his wife Marie before Tim put him down? Is Tim in denial of the supernatural events that Kaylie remembers or is he correct in his psychological analysis of himself? Because there are scenes of Alan hallucinating and Marie hearing things in the presence of the mirror in the flashback scenes, it is pretty clear very early on that Kaylie is correct that there is something supernatural going on.

Karen Gillan is good as Kaylie. Kaylie, for the bulk of the movie set in the “present,” is a strong female protagonist. Sure, she has a boyfriend in the form of Michael Dumont (who she is arguably with just to get access to the mirror), but otherwise she is completely independent and in control. She has strong memories of the past and wants to exonerate her brother, who had been convicted for killing their parents. Kaylie uses smart, scientific methodology to try to prove the supernatural events she recalls and it is easy for the viewer to root for her. Gillan has enough on-screen force and gravitas to make Kaylie and her outrageous theories seem plausible.

What is equally impressive is how well director Mike Flanagan gets Annalise Basso to give a virtually identical performance to Karen Gillan’s as the younger version of Kaylie. For such a young actress, Basso brings all of the requisite intensity and articulation to the young Kaylie to make her seem plausible and strong enough to survive the initial incident. Actress Katee Sackhoff appears in Oculus with a creep-out factor I have never seen from her before. Sackhoff is disturbing to watch from her bugged-out eyes to her erratic body language as the possessed and distraught Marie in Oculus.

Before Oculus turns into a time-warped, mostly-dark, play-to-all-of-the-predictable-horror-conceits flick, it is actually engaging enough to be watchable and interesting. Like virtually every horror movie, Oculus hinges on reversals and freak-out moments that come largely from the sudden appearance of people and things on the screen when they were not present a frame prior. Oculus is predictably disturbing, but it choreographs the terror with its pounding soundtrack and tricks of light that seasoned viewers will be accustomed to. Oculus will not make this generation avoid mirrors, but if this is the start of a franchise, it is hard to see how any potential follow-up could improve upon the good execution of such a dubious premise.

For other works with Katee Sackhoff, please check out my reviews of:
The Clone Wars - Season Five
The Clone Wars - Season Four


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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