FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Oculus

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Mild spoilers.



Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has a good job at an auction house and a nice handsome boyfriend whose family owns the company (One Tree Hill's James Lafferty - yo Nathan). She also has a brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), about to be released from a mental facility where he has spent the last ten years after supposedly killing their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane). Yet all is not what it seems as Kaylie is determined that a mirror known as the Lasser Glass is actually responsible, possessed by a supernatural force that turns its owners maniacally murderous. She and Tim return to their old house with the mirror and are forced to confront their family's history of violence.

Structurally, the film is particularly clever, weaving in the original family breakdown alongside its reflection in older Tim and Kaylie's present as they are doomed to repeat the night's events, albeit with their own twist. That idea of sight, perception and being able to trust what you can see or remember is built into the film on a technical level. The editing is seamless as scenes from the past begin interfering with the present and vice versa, the physical blocking of the scenes almost as elegant as the sweeping camera movements that blend the transitions. Directing, writing and editing, Mike Flanagan controls all of this with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, building an atmosphere steadily and orchestrating it to an intense crescendo.

The mirror itself functions as the logical centre of the movie in that it can create its own; hallucinations are par for the course, adding to that sense of displacement between past and present. It also means that the film avoids the stupid character trope, an almost cynical manoeuvre on Flanagan's part to ensure that any daft points can be waved away with "the mirror did it." Thankfully, that only becomes obvious once you start thinking about the movie once you've finished watching it and not operating as an in-movie distraction. The taut structure keeps you bound in with the unfolding events, though once it becomes apparent that Tim and Kaylie are repeating all their old moves, Oculus becomes its own walking spoiler.

That's not necessarily a bad thing either, lending a doomladen inevitability to the narrative and really, what makes Oculus such an absorbing experience is that even if you strip away all of the supernatural elements, the film still operates as a domestic tragedy. Kaylie and Tim are battling their own traumas, the effects left upon them by their parents' violent marital breakdown. The mirror's influence simply gives them a point of blame. 

It's aided by the Scully and Mulder dynamic that's established between Tim and Kaylie, only here it's the redhead who's the full believer opposite a sceptic brunette. The film itself seems to oscillate between the two points of view so, around the mid-point, you're never quite sure if it's going to take you down the supernatural route or pull you back into the real world. It's a dizzying effect and combined with the film's determination to mess with both the audience's and the characters' perception makes for an unsettling combination.

That sense of tragedy would be nothing without the six heartfelt performances from the family Russell both past and present. I've adored Katee Sackhoff since Starbuck so it's no surprise that she's excellent here. As Marie begins to unravel, Sackhoff's physical performance takes over, crashing through the house with a kind of primal ferocity. Cochrane offers a more composed contrast, but possibly all the more terrifying for it. Basso and Ryan as the younger siblings capture the fear that comes with seeing the family breakdown, even before anything supernatural occurs.

However, the film relies on Thwaites and Gillan to bring everything together within the present day plotline and their estranged sibling dynamic feeds into their polar opposite views. Thwaites is probably given the more difficult task as Tim has to come to terms with re-remembering how the events of that fateful night played out whilst trying to prevent it happen again. Gillan particularly impresses, never succumbing to the hysterics that often characterise a horror heroine and is, in fact, particularly pragmatic. One suspects her time on Doctor Who helped with her ability to fire out exposition and she makes it seem effortless.

I must confess that I began Oculus with the expectation of it being a fairly typical haunted house/possession type deal, but was pleasantly surprised by a film that's far more ambitious than it initially lets on. Flanagan's created something that, like the best horrors, works on multiple levels and though aspects of it fray when you dwell on them too long after the credits, it never lets you off the hook during its runtime.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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