Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: Oculus

Year: 2014
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cocharne

Synopsis is here:

It is currently world cup season and I have spent much of the last week in a colorful football haze, doing my best to catch as many of the games as I can. A good friend of mine (who despises sports) invited me out to the cinema to watch Oculus as he didn’t really have another person interested in horror movies to go with. Personally, I feel there was an unconscious, ulterior motive: to get me out the house and back on the films so I could possibly fill my social network statues with something other than awful memes of Spain’s demise.

My visit to watch Oculus coincided with the Holland vs Australia game and, of course, in typical fashion, it featured one of the best goals of the tournament so far. That said, movies are my overall passion and while I wished I saw the game in its entirety, I’ll happily miss football for a horror film which delivers the goods. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus was quick to inform me that I made the right choice missing the game.

James Wan and Leigh Warrell may be gaining the plaudits when it comes to the populist aspect of the genre, but Flanagan’s second feature (his first was the Kickstarter sponsored Absentia) really finds a way to get under the fingernails. Oculus doesn’t resort to the cheap and mechanical scares that littered the likes of immensely popular The Conjuring (2013). Instead, it finds a way to take the known tropes of the genre, invigorate them with some slight tweaks, strong knowledge of a decent setup and genuinely affecting characters. Oculus clearly riffs on the likes of The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979 & 2005) and a truckload of psychological/possession films before it, yet the film’s direction and performances hold a conviction that I sometimes find to be sorely lacking from this particular sub-genre of horror.

This is a film which has a very measured, gradual building of tension, with a screenplay keeps its characters and their emotions in the forefront. More importantly, these main characters feel strong. Karen Gillan’s Kaylee feels less like a cutout from the horror template of female horror characters and is a frank young woman who actually has a game plan for dealing with the evil at hand. Brenton Thwaites’ Tim may feel less defined at times, but the actor still manages to give the character a confused energy that heightens the uncomfortable feeling that hangs in the film’s air. Katee Sackhoff impresses with a sometimes savagely physical performance, meanwhile Rory Cocharne shows that the years haven’t been kind to him since Empire Records with an intense and brooding performance.  
Flanagan displays his confidence with a third act that had me agreeing with my friend's statement that we landed in “Videodrome territory”. Not only does Flanagan hold a strong grasp of atmosphere (the lingering camera gains a sense of dread throughout), but as the film hurtles towards its climax, he manages to maintain the complexity of the film's flashback narrative. The final third becomes devilishly playful in teasing us with the character’s sense of their past, their present and how both converge. We only become confused when the film wants us be, and the mental geography that takes place, never leaves the viewer behind.

These reasons are why I found Oculus such an interesting entry into the horror genre. Oculus doesn’t turn the old archetypes on its head. Instead, it merely reminds us about the people who have to do their best to survive the things that go bump in the night. Something I wish I felt when watching The Conjuring. Hauntings have always been about the people being scared. When we see their reactions, we feel it too.