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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Oculus movie review: broken glass

Oculus yellow light

The eerie atmosphere of psychological upset is intriguing and unusual, but it’s not actually all that scary.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not seen the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The reflection is coming from inside the mirror! Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan [Doctor Who], sporting a pitch-perfect American accent) has a plan to prove that the enormous fugly gothic-framed looking-glass that once hung in her childhood home is, in fact, responsible — in an ooky-spooky way — for a night of murderous violence that ended with her younger brother, Tim, then only 11, shooting Dad to death. On the day that now-21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites: Maleficent) is released from the psychiatric hospital where he’s been held for a decade, Kaylie sets up her experiment — lots of videocameras and other devices designed to detect supernatural activity — in their former home, which is currently unoccupied. But wait! If the mirror really is haunted, is it a good idea for two of its previous victims to hole themselves up with it? This isn’t a traditional sort of horror film, more a psychological examination of a family in crisis: present-day events are juxtaposed with those leading up to the shooting; Katee Sackhoff (Riddick) and Rory Cochrane (Parkland) portray Mom and Dad in the past, with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) as the pubescent Kaylie and Tim. It’s most notable for its insightful portrayal of an intense brother-sister relationship — which isn’t something often depicted on film; the young actors are superb — and the eerie atmosphere writer (with Jeff Howard) and director Mike Flanagan achieves chiefly through the external expressions of the internal upset Kaylie and Tim (both as adults and children) are suffering. I particularly like how Flanagan resists the temptation to explain the mirror: there is never a scene in which we learn about, say, the demon who is possessing it, or whatever, which is much more convincingly scary than any acceding to “rational” cause-and-effect ever is. The mirror is, quite simply, a true mystery. Yet while Oculus is more effective than most examples of the genre, it’s still not actually all that scary, and it feels very much like a short film padded out to feature length… as, indeed, it is: Flanagan is expanding on his own previous work. As with Kaylie and the mirror, some things are better left as they are.

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Oculus (2014)
US/Can release: Apr 11 2014
UK/Ire release: Jun 13 2014

MPAA: rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence, horror)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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