Anyone who has kept up-to-speed with the blog will know I’m the one who loves horror films. I get a (some would say weird) kick out of being scared, wanting to look away from the screen but can’t, because I want to know what happens next. Horror is my favourite genre bar none, but for every good horror film, there are plenty of trashy, recycling the same old clichés, straight to DVD time wasters stinking up car boot sales, eBay and second-hand DVD shops. I’ll happily sit and watch a film that has vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, masked killers, or a haunted house, but I’m high maintenance when it comes to what films deserve a place in my DVD collection. The best horror films are the ones that break the rules, that are subtle and try something different. They take a familiar concept – you think you know where the jolts and loud bangs are – and make it unpredictable. The most frightening horror films are always the ones where you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen.
Go back ten years and if you wanted a decent scare, you had to watch something with subtitles. Occasionally us Brits came up with something memorable, but for the last ten-to-fifteen years, the very best horror was coming from Europe and Asia. There were a couple of exceptions (Paranormal Activity, The Mist), but America was more interested in torture porn, remakes, and churning out sequels. Take a look at blogs and fan sites in the early-to-mid noughties and there are plenty of posts and articles suggesting that America had forgotten how to scare people. Mercifully this changed in the last few years with first-rate films such as The Last Exorcism, Insidious, Mama, Cabin in the Woods, The Conjuring, and Lovely Molly. You can now add Mike Flanagan’s Oculus to this list.
Having survived a family tragedy, brother and sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) return to their family home to try and remember what happened. Did their father lose his mind, or was a mirror, the Lassar glass, responsible? Kaylie is convinced the mirror is haunted, that it can possess its victims, and becomes obsessed with finding the evidence she needs.
Oculus is a smart film. You can understand why Gillan decided to come on board, Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan’s script is like an episode of Doctor Who, if Steven Moffat decided to write something violent and mess-with-your-head disturbing. Flanagan is clearly a big believer in the rule, “Show, don’t tell”. When the film opens we have no idea what happened to Kaylie and Tim when they were children. Instead the film deftly flicks back and forth between past and present, piecing things together until, cleverly, in the final act, past and present combine with both adult and child actors crossing over in the same scene, all skilfully edited together by Flanagan.
Usually in a horror film, it’s all about the scares; fleshed out characters are right at the bottom of the To Do List. With Oculus, Gillan and Thwaites get more to do than jump in all the right places. Throughout most of its hundred-and-four minutes, Oculus asks the question, is the mirror really haunted or are Kaylie and Tim blaming the Lassar glass for their parents’ actions? Rather than the flaky female lead who runs around screaming, Kaylie is aggressive, obsessive, and borderline unhinged. There is no question in her mind that the mirror is to blame. Yet watching how Kaylie behaves, you constantly question her logic. Tim is supposed to be the crazy one, having grown up in an institution. Instead he looks at things calmly and rationally; he’s Dana Scully from The X-Files. While it’s easier to empathise with Tim, you start doubting his version of events; was it all a tragedy, no more, no less, or is it the therapy talking when Tim claims that none of it was real?
Oculus isn’t the perfect horror film like Wise’s The Haunting or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; it has one or two niggling flaws. In the final twenty minutes, the film buckles under the weight of its own ideas. By making you question what’s real and what isn’t, it loses some of its coherency. At long last, what happened to Kaylie and Tim’s parents is revealed, the grown-up brother and sister taking on the mirror together. It’s uncomfortable, fidget around in your seat levels of tension, though you’ll find yourself struggling to work out whether a couple of scenes in the film really happened. The dialogue is occasionally clunky instead of coming across as natural, and Karen Gillan’s Scottish accent sometimes rears its head.
These are small issues. Oculus is good old-fashioned horror with plenty of new ideas, relying on an increasingly uncomfortable atmosphere to scare you, and the jolts, when they do come, are when you least expect them. Do you like scary movies? If the answer’s yes, then say hello to one of your favourite films of this year.
4 out of 5