Every year, without fail, there’s at least one major horror release that receives a little too much love from the critics. To be one of these over-heralded films, you need a strong female lead, a masked killer and a script reminiscent of ’80s slasher flicks, but only in a self-aware way.
This year’s winner is Oculus. The film has gotten an incredible amount of prerelease buzz, and while it does offer some outstanding performances, an unsteady guiding hand crushes its momentum.
Oculus opens with 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental health facility, where he has been since the tragic deaths of his parents. Held responsible for their murders, Tim is reunited with the only person that truly believes his innocence: his older sister Kaylie (Dr. Who’s Karen Gillan).
Ready to move on with his life, Tim has accepted his role in the deaths; Kaylie, however, has a different agenda. Having waited several years for Tim’s release, she wants to confront what she believes to be the true murderer of her parents: a supernatural entity in an antique mirror that hung in her father’s home office. Having acquired both the mirror and the house, Kaylie is ready for revenge.
It’s always a pleasure to see an actor knocking a role out of the park, and the highlight of Oculus is Rory Cochrane’s portrayal of doomed family patriarch Alan Russell. Cochrane, now and forever known as Slater in Dazed and Confused, delivers one of the finest performances of the year so far as a loving husband and father whose relationship with his family slowly deteriorates into torture and murder. Cochrane’s portrayal of quiet evil is unnerving, and it reminds us of the inhumanity that occurs every day in “safe” neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, Cochrane’s performance is the only one able to make it through this production unharmed by the bumbling of an inexperienced filmmaker. This is writer/director Mike Flanagan’s first major credit, and while a better director might have stunned filmgoers with the movie’s premise, instead we leave stunned by the ineptness on display. Flanagan was clearly inspired by The Shining, and film geeks can now see what Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel might have looked like in lesser hands. It isn’t pretty.
Flanagan’s missteps are numerous, but Oculus has the potential to be a great what-could-have-been film for years to come. For Gillan’s portrayal of a tortured woman—perhaps the victim of untreated mental trauma from the horrors she witnessed as a youth—the director calls on the actress to play the character as just slightly more subtle than an asylum patient in a 1920s silent comedy.
But the film is really done in by the clumsy overuse of flashbacks, which come so fast and furious that it’s impossible to understand what’s happening at some points. There are some scenes that can be interpreted in about four different ways, without even taking into account whatever the spooky mirror is doing at the time.
Oculus is the rare movie that’s terrible without being an embarrassment for the actors. It’s clear that the performers did the best they could with the materials given to them. That said, the term “director jail” exists for a reason, and Flanagan should be shown to his cell immediately.