Ok, I admit I am a bit out of touch with the modern horror genre. I said as much when I did a review of The Conjuring. So what does a girl do who has had nightmares the last 5 days in a row? She goes and sees a horror movie to take her mind off of it. Why have I not watched horror? She who kept bullies away in 9th grade by writing the 250 horror movies she had already seen on her book cover?
I believe in a Golden Age of horror. One that didn’t exist. I grew up with Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Halloween. I grew up with Serpent and the Rainbow, Childs Play, THe Fog, Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside. People of my generation, by and large, have a terribly great nostalgia for these films and those like them. No one thinks about their sequels and all of the other horrible movies that came out at the same time. Every generation has them. The greats. Every generation has nostalgia for them and does their best to ignore the rest of the garbage. This has gone on since the 1930s. I could name a dozen greats in every decade and easily three times as many that were less so.
My point? It is not fair to judge the current style of horror films based on what came in decades prior. Judge them on their own merit. Judge them on their execution. Judge them on their originality. Do not, however, judge them against the films you grew up with. So where does that leave Oculus? In an interesting place. My rule of writing movie reviews without spoilers and trying to write a review on a horror/suspense film. Not particularly easy.
Written by Mike Flanagan, who also directed, and Jeff Howard, who have done nothing you’ve seen before. The movie is officially based on a short film of the same name by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman. Originality? Eh. Yes and No. I have a book in my library from 1954 that has a short story about a crack in a mirror and seeing your own death in it. Stephen King wrote the Reapers Image which was written in 1966 about a man who sees a dark spot in the mirror and vanishes from a tour as if he was never there. These bear the closest resemblance to the story we have. Of course, when it comes to horror we have a terrible fascination with mirrors. How many of you have played Bloody Mary? Much less watched a movie about it. Candyman? One of the best mirror horrors out there. Possibly nostalgia, but I will live with that.
The story this time, focuses on two siblings that experienced a traumatic event early in their life and now eleven years later decide to face it again. The movie actually rather deftly handles the paranormal sciences of ghost hunting with a combination of home invasion and psychosis. Home invasion is that which scares us as a society the most right now. Combine that with the paranormal and it manifests that fear perfectly. Something you can’t really fight, something you can’t see. Something that makes you feel defenseless. Thats what we have decided this generation is terrifying. Combine that fear with the media talking about “normal people” who go crazy and harm those they ostensibly love and the movie hits two things at once. A little bit Shining and a little bit Candyman.
To be successful though the movie needs good actors. People who can emote better than average and understand their own fears and know how to bring it to the screen. Oculus has that in spades. First you have Rory Cochrane (Speedle from CSI Miami) as the father shown mostly in flashbacks. The Jack Nicholson role. Then you have Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from BSG), as the loving mother of two with her own internal and external demons. Brenton Thwaites (to be seen later this year as Prince Phillip in Maleficent) as the son, Tim, in the current time frame. Karen Gillan (Dr. Who and Guardians of the Galaxy) rounds out the main cast as the sister Kaylie all grown up. You also have two young actors, Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan, as young Kaylie and Tim.
The four actors playing the children really carry the film, both in flashback and current timelines. Special credit goes to Gillan and Basso though who deliver in spades. I really believe they are the same person. Gillan really carries the scars of the past that Basso let affect her version of Kaylie. I want to see more of what Basso can do and already know Gillan has a long career ahead of her (or hope she does). What really got me was how the characters of Tim and Kaylie dealt with the events that happened years before. One with technology and parascience; the other with psychology and pseudoscience. Obsession and denial are as powerful as the Mirror in this. It’s actually really well done and intriguing to watch play out.
The technicals are also what helps. This comes down to a movie that paces itself well. It runs an hour and 45 and doesn’t deserve a minute more or less. It succeeds at doing what a horror movie should, building tension. It also, in the trailer famous lightbulb sequence reminds me I still have a gag reflex. That’s sound editing and make up folks. Done well. Lighting and camera work do their part as well building a terrific atmosphere through the film that uses light as much as it does shadow. A horror movie using stark whites? Yep! It stands apart, from all other horror movies I’ve casually observed recently, for that and its use of vibrant color when it does use them.
But…does it ultimately succeed?
TL;DR it is to answer that.
Perhaps I was expecting more. Something else? I do recommend it for horror lovers. I recommend it for those who enjoy parasciences as well for how the movie executes it. Yet, I can only recommend this one as a matinee. For all the good it does, it never quite stuck the landing perfectly for me.
It did however, give me an opportunity to see what is best in the modern horror genre and I will likely be covering more of them as the year continues.
Next week – Transcendence, with Johnny Depp.