Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Oculus" Review: A Fun Premise And Solid Acting Can't Shake The Feeling That We Have Seen All This Before

If there is one genre that can be forgiven for borrowing or outright stealing from its many influences, it is the horror genre. Familiar themes and circumstances are reused and recycled in horror films so often that it is near impossible to determine who was the first to do what. But the reason we forgive this lack of originality is because the bottom line is we just want to be scared and if you can provide some good scares, all is forgiven.

But if you fail at providing the requisite scares, anything that could have been seen as a positive quickly flips into a negative as all we can do is sit there and compare it to all the films it is copying and how those films did everything much better. The new horror film Oculus is a film that shares many key ingredients with other notable films in the horror genre, but can it scare us enough to keep our minds off the fact that those other films did what it tries to do better? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 30 Orange
Time:8:00 pm, April 12, 2014       
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: R                 
Film Runtime: 1 hr 45 min    
Studio: Relativity Media

Loves: Scary movies
Likes: Karen Gillan, spooky atmosphere
Neutral:  Borrowing heavily from other films
Hates: Feeling derivative of those other films
Worth it: If you want a movie that delivers 2/3 on its promise.

Things start off extremely promising as we are introduced to a pair of siblings, a brother and sister to be exact. The brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just turned 21 and is being released from a psychiatric facility that he has been in for the past 10 years following the deaths of both his mother and father. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who was orphaned at the same time he was locked up, has grown up but has never forgotten what happened that fateful night when both their mother and father died.

Both Tim and Kaylie have different memories of what happened that fateful night 10 years ago. While Tim has been told by his doctors that his father had killed his mother and while defending his sister he himself shot and killed his father, Kaylie remembers that there was nothing normal about the set of events that evening. She remembers that there were a number of strange and supernatural events that had happened which she has connected to an ancient mirror that had hung inside their father's study.

Upon Tim's release, Kaylie approaches him in seek of his help to destroy the mirror once and for all, a feat that is seemingly impossible as told by Kaylie during an elaborate show and tell session she performs for Tim and ourselves. Despite not believing a word of what his sister tells him, Tim agrees to go back to their old house where Kaylie has procured the mirror using some illegal methods and placed it right back where it was 10 years ago when they were kids and watched their family be ripped apart.

Kaylie, knowing what the mirror is capable of after extensive research, has outfitted the house with an assortment of goodies that will hopefully help her and Tim survive the night as they find a way to evoke the evil that lies within the mirror and ultimately kill it. Using all the knowledge she has attained over the years and a number of little tricks up her sleeve, Kaylie hopes to avenge their parents and put an end to the centuries of torture this mirror has caused its owners.

Immediately a number of films pop up when trying to find the best way to describe Oculus. The most obvious being Stanley Kubrick's/Stephen King's The Shining, which was about a father driven mad by spirits who convince him to murder his family. Likewise, we learn through a series of flashbacks (which the film bounces back and forth from routinely) that whatever evil lives inside the mirror is controlling the siblings father and eventually drives him towards the point of insanity as he also attempts to murder his family.

Then you also have films such as Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, both of which feature a family under attack by a malicious spirit as well. But other similarities shine through such as the documentation of the paranormal events which Kaylie mimics with her multi-camera set up and the idea that the kids realize that something is wrong with their father well before their mother ever does. Sure, you can find just about any influence of any horror film ever made using those examples, but with Oculus it doesn't even seem like writer/director Mike Flanagan was even trying to disguise this fact from us.

But even when compared to those horror genre heavyweights the film is able to stand on its own...most of the time anyways. Probably the best and most intriguing sequence in the entire film is the monologue by Kaylie as she goes over the assorted history of the mirror. Through both superb writing and acting (Gillan proves here that she has some real range), this one scene sets the stage for the funhouse of horrors that are to come and successfully puts the audience in the correct frame of mind to prepare them for the strangeness that is about to happen.

The film's most interesting and original idea is how this mirror "feeds" off its victims and what it does to them in the process. As soon as an individual is caught lingering at the mirror they are likely done for, which is a scary thought considering how often we look at ourselves in mirrors. Since the mirror has no real physical form it relies on its ability to confuse its victims into either killing each other or themselves which leads into a twisty sequence of events that both Kaylie and Tim must navigate through in order to outsmart the mirror and survive the night.

Where the film begins to come apart at the seams though is during its final act. As mentioned earlier, the film bounces back and forth between Tim and Kaylie as adults trying to kill the mirror and them as kids. The sequences with them as kids takes place during the time of, and leading up to, the death of their parents which is used rather effectively to provide answers to questions posed by the grown up siblings in present day. However, what starts out as a useful narrative tool quickly spirals out of control as both the present and past start to become intermingled with one another to the point of confusion.

We see a young Kaylie interracting with a grown up Tim, or a grown up Kaylie seeing her younger self and Tom reenacting moments from their past. While this is clearly the mirror trying to trick them (or perhaps a failed attempt by Flanagan to compress the two narratives into one), it is nonetheless confusing as hell trying to keep up with the events going on. Perhaps if we had seen the past events earlier and then saw how the present day was colliding with them it would have provided a base for us to use to keep track of what all was happening. But since we have no idea what occurred in the past up til that point, the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film becomes a mess.

Speaking of a mess, although the film earned itself an R rating, it hardly uses it to its advantage. There is lots of blood and gore, but none of it helps the film in any way, shape or form. This could have easily been a PG-13 affair and it wouldn't have missed a thing. Lastly though, and possibly the worst offense of the entire film, is that it just isn't all that scary in the end. There are maybe one or two scenes that are genuinely creepy, but overall the film fails to make any real impact. Things are made even worse when we receive an all too predictable ending that does the prerequisite horror que of setting up a sequel.


That acting is solid, especially from Karen Gillan who holds the entire thing together, the premise is intriguing and fun, but in the end it is too reminiscent of other (better) films and isn't nearly scary enough to keep our minds focused on anything but that. The film isn't a complete failure and does hold enough interest through its moderate length to keep most horror fans invested, but the ending ruins any momentum the film had up to that point with a confusing mess of plot points colliding and leaving the viewer wondering what the hell is happening.

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