Reviews
Oculus
Blu-Ray

By Jorge Figueiredo - August 30th, 2014

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Throughout the history of horrors and thrillers, reflections have had their fair share of screen time. Sometimes, reflections reveal a monster or murderer sneaking up behind an unsuspecting character, causing the audience to shout out at the screen. At other times, the lack of a character’s reflection in a mirror hints at their supernatural origin. And who can forget those movies that feature horrible creatures that are summoned through the use of a mirror? Yes, reflections have the capacity to add an extra layer of fright to almost any already tense situation. Oculus (WWE Studios, Blumhouse Productions, and Intrepid Pictures), a 2014 horror film written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, takes a mirror, and places it squarely in the center of a twisted plot. While slow-moving at times, I found that Oculus was a clever film, pushing forth a scary idea and then wrapping around the viewer’s imagination to great effect, making it a somewhat refreshing film from a genre that seems to be filled with boring and tired movies in more recent times.

The story begins with two children (a girl and her younger brother, played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) hiding from something obviously horrific. Over the course of a few minutes, we see that they are trapped in a dark house, being slowly stalked by a man with a gun. As they try to escape out the front, the boy looks into an adjacent room to see a spectral woman with mirrors for eyes standing in front of an antique mirror. His attention is drawn away by his sister’s panicked screams as the armed man finds them and raises his gun. And then, we find ourselves in a mental hospital, where Tim Russel (Brendon Thwaites) finishes describing his recurring dream of a horrible childhood event (which we find out was the opening sequence). Apparently this version dream was different from previous descriptions, prompting Tim’s therapist to believe that Tim has finally come to terms with his trauma. And so, Tim is granted his freedom after an obviously long period of rehabilitation.

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These kids were great in the film.

Tim’s sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) picks Tim up from the institution, and it becomes clear that she has not forgotten about their past. Through careful planning, she managed to have herself placed in an auction house (where her fiancee works) that is going to be selling off the mirror that was shown in the opening sequence. Her plan is to destroy the cursed object, as she believes that it was the mirror that caused their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) and mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) to become unhinged, leading to the horrible sequence of events that haunted Tim’s dreams for so long. However, before she destroys the mirror, she wants to document it, proving once and for all that their father and mother died because of the mirror’s influence. Kaylie is convinced that the mirror has a powerful influence over anyone that looks at it, and so she sets up the mirror in their original house, with multiple cameras (on different power feeds, each recording to a different computer) and a number of different fail-safes to ensure that they don’t fall prey to the charms of the antique. From the moment that the siblings set foot back into the house after Tim’s release, the past and the present become jumbled as two timelines reveal the truth about what happened so long ago – but is it enough to stop the mirror from exerting its powerful influence again?

I’ll admit that when I saw that WWE Studios was one of the production companies involved, I wasn’t expecting much. Above and beyond that, I find that horror movies these days are a far cry from such classics as The Exorcist or The Omen; The Conjuring was compelling, and one of the chapters of V/H/S (Amateur Night) was actually really well done – but many other modern horror movies that I have watched turn out to be tired, silly affairs that end up being more ridiculous than scary. For instance, there are moments when Kaylie is speaking that seem forced and odd, and threaten to take the edge off of the realism of the film. To me, a good horror film traipses along the line between the fantastic and the believable, relying on suspense and well-crafted dialogue. This leads one to question perceptions of reality both during the film and at the conclusion. Oculus impressed me in this regard, because of both the compelling plot and the style in which the story is told.

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Just smash the damned thing right now!

The split timeline presentation (past and present) of Oculus draws the viewer in, making them question various “facts” presented within the movie and creating a deep sense of involvement. At the beginning of the film, we are presented with one version of what happened to Kaylie and Tim during the night their father went on a rampage. As the film unfolds after Tim and Kaylie are reunited, we are treated to a more in-depth look at their past, and the events that led up to the traumatic event in a series of flashbacks. What is even more interesting, though, is when elements of the past bleed into the present – almost literally. At the beginning of the dual-timeline presentation, the different sets of events are separated by clever transitions, only to give way later to heavily overlapping elements when parts of both timelines are in the same frame. It’s enlightening and confusing all at the same time – and it is obviously disturbing to the characters. What is even more disorienting is that events that are occurring may not be true, and it is not until the end that the viewer finally understands the true sequence of events. It is well-crafted storytelling, and it more than makes up for any mild weakness in dialogue that might be present in the film (whether due to the actor, the direction or the writing).

I need to be clear here. My complaint about the dialogue actually centers around a very small part of the movie where Karen Gillan is delivering a specific piece of dialogue that sounds forced. The only reason that I mention it at all is because it does tug at the corners of the curtain, removing some of the allure of the film’s delicious tension. Aside from that one part, though, all of the parts are fantastically acted. Everyone does a really fantastic job of portraying their roles very effectively. Cochrane and Sackhoff really sell their trip into madness while Gillan and Thwaites mirror their “parents” in the present timeline, with the small difference of having lived through the evil before and thus being more determined to complete their mission. Even the kids convince the audience that they are genuinely scared. Yes. Great acting and a fantastic premise (with some great effects and surprisingly little blood and guts) make for a positively nerve-wracking experience. Fun!

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This looks bad. This looks really bad. Excuse me. Going to go hide now.

For a film that’s half-shrouded in darkness, Oculus on Blu-ray is a treat for the eyeballs. The AVC-encoded transfer is presented in 1080p (at a ratio of 2.40:1) while there are a lot of moments in shadow, the visuals are versatile and look really great (with very little odd processing, to boot). Exterior scenes in “daytime” are colorful and vivid. Exterior scenes at night are warm, with darkness creeping in on the fringes (as it should) and the street lamps punching their light in the background. There are some moments where the dark scenes seem somewhat artificial – but it fits into the film (the father disappears a little to early into the shadows for my liking during one scene). Regardless of what the lighting conditions are, in any given shot everything is nice and sharp with little grain or colour banding. The sound, too, is also sharp in some ways. The low end cuts through the room like a titan’s heartbeat, shaking the floor. Sometimes the bass builds slowly (during the suspenseful parts), while at others it acts as an adrenaline amplifier. Excellent use of the surround sound field results in realistic ambient sounds. Meanwhile, dialogue is very clean and clear (which is important in the film). Climactic moments result in something of an aesthetic crescendo, with video and audio feeding off of each other like symbiotic organisms. It’s not the most impressive video and sound – but it does a damned fine job.

Extras are somewhat standard. Commentary is included for the film, and it is quite informative. There is a 10 minute Deleted Scenes featurette with commentary by Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy(optional). Inside the Mirror: Creating Oculus is another presentation that runs close to the 10 minute mark that has some behind-the-scenes goodness and interviews. The Theatrical Trailer runs about 1:30 and is pretty creepy (I would recommend that you watch this before the film, actually). All of these features are presented in HD. The final feature is not 1080p (it’s 480i, actually), but it is the best by far: the short film that this film is based on. Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan is Mike Flanagan’s original Oculus, and while it is not as polished as the main feature, it is a really cool production that manages to get the heart pumping even though it looks really low budget. For added information, there is accompanying commentary.

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I’m glad I’m still hiding from the last picture!

Oculus takes a chance with simultaneous storylines and the gamble pays off. Captivating and creepy, the film utilizes a great hook and effective acting to draw the viewer in and then play with their mind. I really enjoyed this film a lot. While it wasn’t the scariest thing that I have ever seen, it really blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, and it had me guessing right up until the very end!

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