Mania Review: Oculus -

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Mania Grade: A-

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  • Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan
  • Written by: Mike Flanagan
  • Directed by: Mike Flanagan
  • Studio: Relativity Media
  • Rating: R
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • Series:

Mania Review: Oculus

He thrusts his fists against the post and still insists he sees the ghost...

By Rob Vaux     April 10, 2014

© Relativity Media/Robert Trate

 The secret to horror movies, as any fan can tell you, is that they aren’t really about monsters or slashers or things that go bump in the night. They’re about fear… and specifically fear that we all feel in our everyday lives. Will I lose my house? Am I as alone as I feel? What will happen when I die? The best horror movies put a scary mask on those questions to help us better cope with them, but always view them as the purpose of the exercise. The worst just get caught up in the trappings and never escape. Good technique can make both types serviceable, but only the best can attain real greatness. Oculus certainly ranks among them: the strongest horror movie since Cabin in the Woods and a testament to what this genre can do in the hands of a real expert.

It actually resembles The Shining more than any other story, with a few nods to Roman Polanski’s early work thrown in for good measure. At its heart lies the destruction of the family and the reality of an insane loved one, which might actually explain everything that transpires. Ostensibly, it’s about an evil mirror and a pair of brave children who want to smash it. Their father (Rory Cochrane) buys it while moving the family into a new home, unaware of the previous owners and their suspicious habit of dying in incredibly horrific ways. A few days later, both he and his wife (Katee Sackhoff) lie riddled with bullets, and their kids get packed off to various state-run institutions.

Here’s where the film gets interesting. The son Brenton (Brenton Thwaites) goes into a mental home and over the course of ten years accepts the events as part of his father’s mental breakdown. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), stays a little safer in foster care, and remains convinced that whatever sinister spirit occupies the mirror caused the whole thing. They day he gets out – ready to put it all behind him – she picks him up and claims that they’re going to kill the monster in the mirror. Like right now.

Writer/director/editor Mika Flanagan gets clever with the narrative, constantly shifting back and forth between the children in the past and the adults they’ve grown into. We move from one era to the other so smoothly that at times the characters themselves don’t know which time period they’re occupying. You see, the mirror has the ability to cloud people’s minds and make then see what it wants them to see (or maybe the characters just go bananas). In any case, the past and the present soon blur together, forming an elegant nonlinear narrative that Tarantino would be proud of.

Within it, the real debate starts. Brenton maintains that it’s all in their heads. Kaylie is desperate to prove him wrong. Whether the mirror goads them on or not soon becomes irrelevant. It’s the argument – the mad rush for proof and conviction – that feeds the real nightmares. Both characters soon start to question their own eyes, and as their debate grows increasingly frenzied, so too does the lengths they would go to win it. We, the audience, share every instant of their struggle and feel the white-knuckle terror beneath it all.

As for more direct scares? Oh yeah, it’s got those in spades, and if that’s all you’re after, Flanagan’s craftsmanship will readily see you through. Creepy faces pop up with ruthless efficiency, and threats both mundane and otherwise come careening at us with the skill of a true master. (Credit Sackhoff for her share of the jolts; this woman is not going quietly into the post-Starbuck good night.) But Oculus is about much more than that, and in trying to get at our deepest fears, it becomes something totally unexpected: a great horror movie. It might not quite stand among the true masterpieces, but it can see them from here, and the assurance with which Flanagan adapts this from his own original short (made for the princely sum of $1,500) suggests that we’re seeing the emergence of a significant new talent. They’ve been popping up a lot in the past few years, and Oculus may be the best of the lot: the rare horror movie that really gets us where we sleep.


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redslayer 4/10/2014 8:25:46 PM


A great review! And here I wa thinking I was not going to the movies this week.  I guess i'll go check this one

SinisterPryde 4/11/2014 12:23:24 AM

It's slow going but it seems like we're actually getting some much needed quality horror films these past couple of years.  We still get steamers but hopefully crap like Saw and Hostel have had their day and won't come back.

rogue188 4/11/2014 6:20:30 AM

My buddy is good friends with Mike Flanagan, and I find it funny that most reviewers are comparing it to The Shining. Flanagan hates that movie, and loves the book. Oh well, I am going to see this tonight and I get to watch the aforementioned buddy in a bit role as a cop. Very much looking forward to this!  

stonedtodeath 4/11/2014 6:49:40 AM

@rogue188 - Flanagan wouldn't be alone, King wasn't a big fan of the movie either.

@SinisterPryde - Although I think Saw was fairly original and had some good twists at the end, the parade of sequels afterward cheapened it.  I didn't like Hostel so I won't try defending it.  There have been some decent horror films released in the last few years.  I liked Sinister and You're Next (even though I think the title sucks).  I don't think either of them were all that original or award winning; I do think they were executed well.

VTGamehendge 4/11/2014 7:57:17 AM

Hmm, sounds encouraging.  I had no intention of seeing this except maybe Red Box or Netflix, but this review might have changed my mind.  Maybe I'll check it out next Tuesday at Bowtie Movieland for $6 night.

blankczech 4/11/2014 10:09:07 AM

 Nice to see a horror movie reviewed on Mania.  I never considered Saw or Hostel to be horror movies. Granted those movies depicted horrible people doing horrible things to other people but for me true horror movies are much more primal than that.  Like the dark...they invoke fear of the unknown, unexplained and incomprehensible. 

blankczech 4/11/2014 11:57:40 AM

 I know it only had a limited opening this weekend but at some point I'd love to hear Vaux's or another Mania writer's take on "Only Lovers Left Alive,"

jimmyzee 4/12/2014 5:53:48 AM

 Cabin in the Woods, ? Are you kidding ! What about The Conjuring, sorry pal but your wrong .

makabriel 4/12/2014 9:25:28 AM

 So weird.. this plotline sounds familiar.  Bad things happen to siblings.  One goes to looney bin, the other tries to live normal life.  Things happen, the kids get back together to vanquish the evil from their past.

Swear I've seen it before.  Had something to do with shadows...




VTGamehendge 4/13/2014 4:18:08 PM

Yeah, Conjuring was pretty good.  Definitely had me on the edge a couple times wondering what was coming next.

Anyway, I'm getting ready to go see it tonight.  Starts in about 35 min.

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