23 June 2014

OCULUS- Review

It's not hard to get all blasé about modern horror, saturated by a studio system that churns out cheap, hit-and-miss ghost train rides which are more interested in getting a momentary jumpy rise out of an audience, than playing on their minds for any longer than it takes for them to leave the cinema. For instance, Oculus is only scary if you regularly have to be around mirrors, reflective surfaces, camera, dogs, offices, apples, bulbs, lights, darkness, you own house or anybody you love, especially your parents.

The story for writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan's primal psychological horror kicks off when 21-year-old Tim Russell is released from a mental institution after an 11 year incarceration following the death of his parents. He's ready to move on with his life but the other survivor of this ordeal, his older sister Kaylie, has other ideas. She believes that the Lasser Glass, a mirror in their father's office, drove their parents insane and she aims to prove it. Having acquired the supposedly haunted artefact at auction, she and Tim set up a series of elaborate tests for the malevolent force, with the objective of destroying it once and for all.

These plans could just as easily have been the undoing of Oculus, but as it turns out, they make it into the unique and original horror flick that it is. Flanagan expertly wrangles exposition in such a way where the film makes time early on for a 15 minute conversation between leads Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, intercut with flashbacks to the youthful versions of their characters, and somehow still ramps up the tension. Although the more visceral chills come in a big bad way later in the film, this extended scene goes by without resorting to jump scares and immediately breaks ground for the rest of the film, getting into the viewer's head by being genuinely thoughtful for a change.

It could have tripped over its own rules many times, but this seems like a film tailor-made for all of those horror fans who complain about incompetent leads, who'll go upstairs when they're trapped in a house with a serial killer, or pick up a camera and film something before picking up a weapon. A bit like her Amy Pond from Doctor Who, Karen Gillan's Kaylie had a brush with the unexplainable when she was young and has used the intervening years to prepare to face this thing again. The real terror comes when the mirror turns out to be wilier than any amount of preparation and motivation can counter.

The film takes place in the present day, with staggered flashbacks to 2002 interspersed throughout the film to reveal the full extent of the Russell family's history with the Lasser Glass. Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane play the doomed parents, each getting more character to chew on than the foregone conclusions that they represent. Special kudos should also be given to the casting department for finding Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the younger counterparts to Gillan and Thwaites, who are both terrified and terrific in the face of the psychological torture and endangerment that their characters endure.

The overall effect, cutting between the mind-bending assault of the mirror in the present and the fuzzily remembered tragedy of the past, makes for one of the most effective representations of nightmare logic that I've seen in a film for a long, long time. There's a rare legitimate excuse for a sleepy fakeout early on, which foreshadows the way in which we later get into the character's heads, abetted by Gillan's slightly tremulous stoicism and Thwaites' halting denial that anything's wrong. Nothing seems real, except the danger that has been firmly established by this point. Even though we've had so much about the mirror explained to us, it quickly becomes apparent that being forewarned is nowhere near as good as forearmed.

Oculus gets so deep into your head, you'll be scratching the base of your skull for an hour or two after watching it. The script, co-written with Jeff Howard, is masterfully crafted, the cast are convincingly motivated and the impeccable editing and cinematography negate any need for the "quiet, quiet BOO" school of schlock horror. In short, this is the kind of properly psychological horror that studios have been pantomiming for the last few years and even though the Blumhouse production company generally has a good track record of solid, if fleeting chillers, Mike Flanagan's arrival as a serious triple threat outclasses them all and should hopefully be a much-needed shot in the arm for the genre.

Oculus is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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If you've seen Oculus, why not leave a comment below? I almost didn't mention Doctor Who, but fuck it, this is the only horror thing I've seen in ages which does as well for adults as Who does for children.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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