***1/2 (out of 5)
April 11, 2014
Karen Gillan as KAYLIE RUSSELL
Brenton Thwaites as TIM RUSSELL
Katee Sackhoff as MARIE RUSSELL
Rory Cochrane as ALAN RUSSELL
Annalise Basso as YOUNG KAYLIE
Garrett Ryan as YOUNG TIM
Studio: Relativity Media
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Horror movies as a genre – and more specifically, mainstream horror movies – are painfully subject to the changing tides of fads. Whether it be the J-horror fad from the early 2000s to the torture porn fad shortly afterwards to the modern albatross of horror movies that is found footage, filmmakers often cannot resist the urge to jump on the latest bandwagon.
I applaud director Mike Flanagan for resisting the temptation to make his new film “Oculus” a found footage film. After all, with the amount of in-camera cameras you see in the film, this would have been an obvious choice.
Instead, Flanagan goes for the latest trend, which is a throwback to 70s and 80s atmospheric horror. But that’s okay. This trend is a welcome refresher, pioneered by James Wan with the films “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” Add “Sinister” to that list, and you get some excellent ghost stories that use light and shadow, the soundtrack and suspense to tell an effective story.
I don’t really consider this a trend because it is how horror movies have been made for years, and it’s a framework that is effect and remains timeless. After all, can you really call meticulously crafted filmmaking a fad? It’s a return to form for the genre, and I’m thrilled to see Flanagan supporting this.
His film “Oculus” is about brother and sister Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) who reunite after Tim has been released from psychiatric observation. Ten years ago, he had shot his father after the murder of his mother. Kaylie recalls that her father wasn’t a monster, but rather possessed by an evil spirit in an ancient mirror. She plans to keep her promise to her brother, to find the mirror and destroy it – and the entity inside – for good. However, this haunted mirror has it’s own plans.
While not as frightening or overall effective as “Insidious,” “The Conjuring” or “Sinister,” “Oculus” is still a fun ride for fans of horror films. I would compare the scares to what we saw in “Mama” last year, which weren’t groundbreaking but still better than most mid-level thrillers sneaked into theaters in the off-months. The set-up is pretty strong, only taken apart a bit with some logical questions that mar any fright flick.
The casting is both effective and troublesome. Sci-fi geeks will enjoy both Karen Gillan (who played the companion Amy Pond in recent seasons of “Doctor Who”) as well as Katee Sackhoff (who played Starbuck in the re-imagining of “Battlestar Galactica”). Both of them use their geek cred to bring a level of quality to the film.
Conversely, the casting of the men in the film seem to come from the CW roster on television. Brenton Thwaites has an unfortunate James Van Der Beek vibe, while the father (Rory Cochrane) just plays soft, even when possessed with evil mirror ghosts. While this can lead to a bit of a tonal tennis match between great performances and lackluster ones, the movie doesn’t suffer too much.
Like James Wan’s “Insidious: Chapter 2,” “Oculus” makes some daring choices, one of which is to present half of the scares in brightly lit environments. These moments are actually more effective than we saw in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” and they give the audience the chills by not really hiding anything. It also works as a ghost story in which you don’t actually see any ghosts for about 80 percent of the film.
I enjoyed “Oculus,” and it’s worth a watch for genre fans. It’s not going to keep you up at night, but it would provide a good time with a few chills.