Of late I have been becoming more and more worried that stories hold no more surprises for me. Books, film, television shows, video games…no matter the delivery method, at some point during the story everything seems so familiar that it can feel as if plot and dialogue are being sprung from my own mind and brought to mediocre life before me. After decades on this earth, it seems that there is nothing new to behold. Rather, it’s the same stories told over and over again, just with new packaging. In fact, this observation of mine is nothing new. Even the bible has something to say. In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is this: “All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us.” Man, if a two-thousand year old bible verse laments lack of originality, what hope do I have in watching horror movies?
I bring this up because Oculus, from director Mike Flanagan, and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, is the rare film where I felt like I was watching something new from beginning to end. Well, not totally new. The movie is about a haunted mirror. Haunted stuff has been done. But what makes this movie stand out for me is that I had no clue what was about to occur from scene to scene. I would hope that the intro to this review would give a reader some idea of how important this movie’s unpredictability was to me.
Oculus tells two stories in one. The first story takes place eleven years ago. A modern American family unit moves into a new house. There’s dad Alan (Rory Cochrane), mom Marie (Katie Sackhoff), daughter Kaylie (Annalise Basso), and son Tim (Garrett Ryan). Alan decided to splurge on an antique mirror for his home office, only the mirror harbors a malevolent presence. Over the next few days, the mirror begins to assert its influence on the family. Alan begins to have an hallucinatory affair with a spectral woman, while Marie begins to suffer debilitating bouts of psychosis and body image problems. The kids are unaffected, to a point, but the mirror turns their folks completely around the bend, and violence follows.
At the same time this story is being told, we see the present-day versions of Kaylie and Tim, played in their later years by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites. Something very bad happened in their house eleven years ago and the two return, with the mirror, to prove that it was a supernatural occurrence. This is a big problem for Tim, as he was just released from a psychiatric hospital because of the events he and his sister witnessed. They, in effect, taunt the mirror into coming after them again. As it does so, and the disturbances in the house become more prevalent, the two stories that had existed as separate events, begin to merge, owing to the mirror’s ability to warp a person’s perceptions. Kaylie and Tim, both today and in the past, can no longer rely on what their senses are telling them, and neither can the viewer. About two-thirds of the way through this movie, I had no idea if the mirror was full of ghosts or if everything that was happening was in Tim’s head. Flanagan and Howard provide no clues of their own. All of this leads to a final act that was both satisfying and horrific. It takes a lot of talent and effort to weave together a mind-fuck story of this complexity and make it work.
But, there is a glaring flaw in this film, and that flaw is the two leads, Gillan and Thwaites. While the younger actors and the pair that played their parents all acquitted themselves nicely, Gillan and Thwaites were overmatched by the material. This is a mature movie with a refined story, yet these two appeared more suited for a teen drama on the CW. They were stiff and unbelievable, and their readings were rushed and mumbled at times. What it feels like is that the numerous production companies involved in this film had no idea the quality of the story they had on their hands. So what we viewers get is a very good horror film that happens to reside in something that looks and feels like just another garbage teen horror flick. Oculus deserved better. But, that should not keep anyone from seeing it. Oculus is among the best horror films I’ve watched for this year’s October Horrorshow, and I’m glad I saw it.