Friday, April 11, 2014

Movie Review: Oculus

The last three years have been some sort of a golden era for modern horror in Hollywood. With titles like Insidious and its sequel, Sinister, Mama, The Conjuring and You’re Next, things are certainly looking up for the horror film buff. Oculus is the latest entry to this pantheon and it is visually overpowering, well-acted, dark and creepy. It’s part psychological thriller, part mind trip, part straight up horror and just a small part of character-based drama, and full on entertainment.

The story is frightfully simple - the film chronicles the brother and sister duo of Tim (Brenton Thwaits) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who lock themselves in their old house to destroy a mirror, which they believe was responsible for the deaths of their parents.

Now here’s the twist – the film is presented from the point of view of both the siblings, and they’re both unreliable narrators, so we’re never sure whether to take the supernatural elements at face value. Director Mike Flanagan superbly weaves together the psychological setbacks of a traumatic childhood event with a haunted house scares. The narrative waltzes back and forth between the present day Tim and Kaylie and their younger versions who faced a harrowing night in the very same location.

For a film about a haunted mirror Oculus is pretty darn smart. Flanagan knows how ludicrous and clichéd the theme is, and he uses the clichés to his advantage. Tim and Kaylie are equally familiar with the stupidity of a ghostly mirror. So Kaylie uses all means of modern recording technology and other paraphernalia like thermometers and alarm clocks to make her scenario as believable as possible. Cleverly, Flanagan makes her character the psychologically fractured and obsessive one, so she has a reason to perform her bizarre experiment to ‘kill’ the ghost in the mirror. Her brother, recently out of a ward after years of counseling and psychiatric help is convinced that his sister is losing her mind, and that puts him on the side of the cynical audience. It’s an intelligent plot device and it’s refreshing to see a classy, creepy and effective ghost story in the modern age of torture porn and CGI heavy hollow scares.

Most of the film is set in one house, so the single location set is a nice touch to ramp up the tension. The film drips with atmosphere and there’s plenty of old fashioned scares. Rarely do modern horror films capture the unsettling silences of a spooky house, and Flanagan achieves just that with his directorial hand and sense of timing. Only James Wan’s movies absorb the viewer into them, and Flanagan comes very close to perfection. And unlike in most horror films the acting here is phenomenal, with Karen Gillan in particular in a surprisingly layered role. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff gets a great turn as the kids’ hapless mother, and she also renders the most horrifying jump scare in the film.

Whether you’re a horror buff or not, you should seriously consider watching Oculus on the big screen. It’s a really fun film with a lot of aural and visual style, and that means all the aesthetics and not just Karen Gillan.

(First published in MiD Day)

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