As a lover of film (with a soft spot for the horror genre in particular), one of the most significant principles I try to abide by is that you can make a good film about anything, or a good film can be about anything. Meaning that no matter how absurd the concept may sound or how poor the marketing is (among other possible factors), if there’s genuine talent involved with the project, it has a fighting chance of turning out worthwhile. Nowhere has this tenant been more relevant lately than in regards to the recent horror film Oculus.
On the surface, most of the details involved at the conceptual level of this film might be enough to instill doubt in even the most generous horror aficionados. Get this: a low budget supernatural horror film about a mirror that somehow causes the death of its owners. Oh, and it’s produced by WWE studios. Uh huh. Like many others surely did, I sneered at the television ads with friends, and made light of the seemingly goofy premise. Even when the film was finally released and met with a surprisingly plentiful amount of positive buzz from both professional film critics and horror fans alike, I still wasn’t entirely convinced. It wasn’t until months later when the film was released on DVD that I finally sat down and gave it a shot. And oh boy, was I pleasantly surprised. It turned out to be one of the most creative and original American horror films I’ve seen in years, mostly due to an intelligent handling of the story’s core concept, as well as containing a couple of strong performances to boot.
As mentioned beforehand, while the basic premise of Oculus does concern a haunted mirror (for lack of a better descriptor), there’s thankfully more to it than simply just that. Plot-wise, it’s tricky to really get into it without spoiling some of the film’s smartest and most surprising aspects. The main thrust of the story concerns a brother and sister reuniting upon the brother being discharged from a psychiatric hospital after staying there for 11 years, with his reason for being there directly linking to the mirror and its role in both of their childhoods. The timeline frequently shifts back and forth between the past events with them as children and their steps to find and destroy the mirror in the present day. And as the film continues, the mirror gains more power and the lines of reality between the timelines begin to blur together.
A round of applause for a unique idea well executed. There’s a unique story here and the concept of two timelines presenting events that reflect each other throughout in a film about a haunted mirror might seem like an obvious trick, but it’s done with enough skill as to feel purposeful in the narrative and less like a gimmick. To the betterment of the film’s tone, the mirror at the center of the story is treated mostly as a benevolent force to be reckoned with and enough doubt is cast at the possibility of it being nothing sinister at all, so that multiple possible interpretations of these events could emerge.
Lead actors Karen Gillan and Brendan Thwaites manage to do a stellar job at selling the weightiness of the situation and it’s for this reason the film hits some emotional notes that most other contemporary horror films unfortunately don’t seem interested in. This is all you have to do to give the events a sense of gravitas and this film does it very well.
Oculus is also one of those rare current horror films whose greatest viewing pleasures derive from mind bending tricks and atmosphere building, rather than cheap jump scares and gruesome imagery, though the latter does make a few brief appearances herein. That said, this film still never loses sight of the characters or the story, and it benefits from that clear focus. Not for more squeamish viewers, but if you’re in the mood for a good old fashioned scare, Oculus is the right choice for this Halloween season.