[ Director: Mike Flanagan; Screenwriters: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard; Starring: Karen Gillen, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Chochrane, Annalise Basso, Garret Ryan, James Lafferty; Running time: 104 minutes; Certification: 15 ]
Perhaps I sound like a broken record, always going on about how starved of horror the current movie market is despite the clear popularity of the genre, but today I can ease off because finally the time has arrived for a new horror movie on these shores – and what better day to release than a rare Friday the 13th. Having waited two long months for Oculus to reach us, the generally positive critical reception in America has afforded plenty of time for a real buzz to percolate around the film; a backing of which cannot be understated as undoubtedly it looks interesting on paper, if a little derivative, but so often that’s the case and so often we’re let down.
Yet that’s very much not the case with Oculus, which feels impressively fresh for a supernatural haunting story. Undeniably it does derive ideas from other films (strong elements of The Shining and just about every haunted house movie has a haunted piece of furniture), but there’s a clear original voice pummelling through the script. It’s unique and inventive, subverting expectations and playing out unpredictably. The plot sets up a fairly straight-forward conflict: a young man (Tim) is released from a mental institution on his 21st birthday after apparently killing his father when he was a child, and his sister (Kaylie) immediately draws him back to their childhood home prove that it was actually an ominous old mirror that committed the murder – and every murder of every owner it’s had over the centuries. There’s actually an element of the severely underrated The Exorcism Of Emily Rose to its central conceit; that idea of science vs spirituality which always makes for compelling storytelling.
But the narrative unfolds in rather unexpected ways. As we continuously cut back and forth between the present day and Tim and Kaylie’s increasingly traumatizing childhood, we’re slowly filled in on just what the mirror is capable of and just what evil is held inside it. The longer it goes on, the more seamless the cuts become and the smarter the events they reveal (some impressive editing by director Mike Flanagan, it should also be noted). The scares, too, are impressively handled. The overall ambiance is excruciatingly taught and twisted, and while actual frights are perhaps a little few and far between, when they do come they take us off guard and often go further than we expect. The only criticism in that respect is the finale, which oddly lacks the punch the filmmakers are clearly going for, and the audience desires.
Yet we’re still left impressed and spooked. Oculus is a smart, chilling and well told story that devotes as much – if not more – time to creating its labyrinthine narrative as it does to scares and jumps – not to mention it achieves all of this in pretty much one location. Amidst a brightening summer full of sports, outdoors and good cheer, there’s always space for a darkened room and a good scare.