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Film review: Oculus

Oculus's success as a horror thriller lies in how well it keeps its characters and consequently the audience on their toes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Oculus review Oculus review

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katie Sachkoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan
Rating: ***1/2

Developed by Mike Flanagan from a much-liked 2006 short film of his, Oculus’s success as a horror thriller lies in how well it keeps its characters and consequently the audience on their toes. It raises the questions that matter without letting you feel settled about any of the answers it offers. You believe you have found two disturbed siblings you want to root for, but is there something more to the cheerful intensity of the girl and the delicate condition of her brother?

Moreover, Oculus doesn’t fall back on the usual horror cliches of doors creaking, sudden sounds, strange music or even blood and gore. There are beings with glowing eyes but these flit in and out, more like apparitions than ghosts.

In 2002, Kaylie and Tim Russell’s parents had died a horrific death after — what the siblings have long insisted — were many days of terror. Since the father was killed at presumably Tim’s hand, the then 10-year-old was confined to a mental facility. Kaylie, 12, was left to fend on her own. It’s 11 years later, and Kaylie now runs an art house, with the sole intention of tracking down an ancient mirror that she believes harbours the thing that drove her parents to their death.

On his 21st birthday, Tim is released from the mental facility. This coincides with Kaylie finally laying hands on the mirror, an ordinary thing with an ornate, oddly shaped frame and a slight crack at the bottom. A reformed Tim, whose demons have finally been laid to rest by doctors, is convinced that their father (Cochrane) did kill their mother (Sachkoff) as he was having an affair, and that he would have killed his two children too hadn’t Tim shot him. Kaylie, who has taken the mirror back to their old country-side house where it all happened, tells Tim to forget what the doctors said and that what she remembers is actually what happened. In the mirror lives a supernatural thing, and they would kill it together, Kaylie tells Tim.

Kaylie, played in a frightfully perfect high pitch by Gillan, has planned the whole operation to a T. She has installed video cameras to record the mirror at all times, alarms to remind her and Tim to eat and drink (the mirror’s “victims” have been known to die of starvation and dehydration, she explains), thermostats to notice a change in temperature, and a swinging anchor operated by a timer to gore whatever that resides inside the glass. Besides Kaylie has stocked extra bulbs, to account for all those that pop off, has plants all around the house (as the mirror is known to wither them), and even buys a dog just to prove that the mirror eats them alive.

The elaborateness of that exercise and Kaylie’s own conviction that she will succeed where no one apparently has in 300 years is unsettling, particularly when she turns on Tim (Thwaites) for suggesting this may be the case. Kaylie’s delight at hints that she may have been right on the existence of a supernatural being is even more unsettling.

By alternating between the siblings as they are now and what they saw when they were kids (played by Basso and Ryan), the film invites you to wonder what is real and what is Kaylie and Tim’s imagination or memory, and what is actually happening and what could be the mirror “playing tricks”.

The disappointing part kicks in when this happens for far too long and far too much in the same vein, to the point that the uncertainty slowly gives way to impatience. Having so cleverly weaved together this story, Flanagan is unable to build it to a satisfying conclusion.

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