Smart horror film terrifies and, ultimately, disappoints.
By Max Weiss. Posted on April 10, 2014, 12:05 pm
Forget the botched How I Met Your Mother ending. My new pop culture disappointment is the ending of Oculus. Oh man, this horror film was sooo good for most of its 105 minutes. And then that ending…well, suffice it to say, I nearly yelled, “You’re better than that!” at the screen.
Let’s focus on the good, shall we? I love a horror film where we’re not quite sure if the protagonist is onto something or completely off her rocker.
That’s Kaylie Russell (excellent Karen Gillan). When the movie begins, she’s picking up her brother Tim (bland Brenton Thwaites) from a mental institution, where he finally has come to accept the fact that he killed his father (Rory Cochrane).
Kaylie, on the other hand, is eager to fulfill a pact the two siblings made when they were children—to destroy the demonic mirror that ruined their lives.
Tim’s vulnerability in these opening scenes is key: His grip on “reality” seems fragile. Will his sister, who never got the therapeutic care he did, drag him back into a world of delusion? Or is he the one who is delusional? He spews out psychobabble phrases for false memory and tricks of seeing patterns where there are none.
Kaylie, however, is all business: She’s been researching the antique mirror—all of its past owners have died in grotesque ways, often by their own hand—and strategies for destroying it. (Since the mirror’s powers seem to extend to mind control, simply taking a sledge hammer to it is not an option).
As Tim tries, with less and less certainty, to convince his sister that she’s losing it, the movie flashes back and forth from the present to their horrific childhood. You know the drill: New house, new creepy mirror, mom and dad start acting strange. Is mom (Katee Sackhoff) going crazy because dad is having an affair? Or is dad’s “affair” actually him under the thrall of the evil mirror?
The casting of young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) is absolutely key. Not only is she a great little actress, but she looks so much like her adult counterpart—both have a long red ponytail that swings like a pendulum when they run—we sometimes are briefly unsure what time frame looking at. That is strictly intentional by smart director Mike Flanagan.
And whether she’s nuts or not, I absolutely love the confidence with which Kaylie is attempting to exorcise that mirror. In most horror films, the protagonists are running for away from the danger. Kaylie tackles it head on—with a confident smirk and a downright Escher-esque series of buzzers and generators and cameras and elaborate weaponry. (The fact that her plan makes zero sense is only something that occurs to you after the film is over.)
Just enjoy Oculus for what it is: Two-thirds of the best horror film I’ve seen all year.
Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.