Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/24/14 14:09:49

"A fun, clever twist on classic horror stories."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I likely won't actually have the time to sit down and plot out what the characters are doing to check and see if it all fits together when "Oculus" is released on video, but I'd kind of like to do so. While one does not really need an excuse to watch a fine horror movie again, there's something especially admirable about the ones which take pride in their intricate construction, especially when they are still able to provide legitimate jumps.

This one starts, more or less, with 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from the mental institution where he has spent half of his life since the death of his father (Rory Cochrane). Back then, young Tim and his sister Kaylie (Garrett Ryan & Annalise Basso) said a haunted mirror was behind what happened to their father and mother (Katee Sackhofff), but Tim has put that delusion behind him and is anxious to see his sister again. As for Kaylie (Karen Gillan), she thinks Tim was released just in time - she has found the mirror and wants Tim to help her kill it.

The believer/skeptic pairing has been a part of stories about the paranormal for about as long as there has been science to suggest that the things that go bump on the night are products of our imaginations, but it's almost never as well-deployed as what director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard do here. Most of the time, one is set up to look foolish, and frustratingly for me, it's usually the man of science being taken down a peg for trying to approach a question rationally. And while something like that must inevitably happen here, it's built so that Kaylie and Tim are both, in their ways, highly rational, coming at the situation in ways that make perfect sense from their own experiences. That Flanagan & Howard opt to invert some of the usual tropes and have believer Kaylie be the tougher older sister of the presumably fragile skeptic Tim is a fun bonus.

It also lends a nifty extra layer to some of their interactions. There's a relatively early scene where Kaylie is dumping a while metric ton of backstory only to be meet with rejoinders from Tim, who has apparently absorbed a ton of clinical knowledge about mental health issues from growing up in an institution, and while there's a chance of it coming off as too much talking about details that don't really matter, it's also a great way to establish that while they believe different things and had very different adolescent years, these two are still siblings, and as such attack the world in a fundamentally similar way and are willing to challenge each other. It's great to watch Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan work, especially in those early scenes; Thwaites is nervous but never weak, and Gillan has the sort of intensity that makes it very easy to believe she's the crazy one while still coming across as witty and likable. Put together, the pair can easily carry half the movie on their own.

Much of the other half is spent on flashbacks to how this mirror preyed upon the Russell family in the early aughts, and for as much as how it ends up is a foregone conclusion, the getting there is well-done. Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso are not quite miniature versions of Thwaites and Gillan, but the sibling relationship seems the same and it's not hard to see how tragedy could mold them into the people they later become. Rory Cochrane, unfortunately, doesn't get to make much of an impression as the father who falls under the mirror's influence early - it just make him sort of genetically distant and insensitive - but Katee Sackhoff picks up any slack there might be as the mother whose deterioration is just as much from emotional abuse as direct paranormal interference (as with Flanagan's prior movie, Absentia, I wouldn't mind seeing the story without anything otherworldly; the dynamics are still interesting that way).

As the movie goes on, the jumping between time periods changes; what starts out as well-delineated looks at helpful backstory become more frantic with elements from the past forcing their way front and center, and even seeming to bleed into the present, as Kaylie's plan goes more and more awry and the past events barrel toward their ordained conclusion. It's suspenseful and also says something about how revisiting a trauma runs the risk of getting caught up in it anew. The present-day portion is building up a nice head of steam on its own, although the meticulousness of the setup may not appeal to everyone as much as it does me - I dig the horror of realizing that Kaylie has set up a science experiment without fully taking how the mirror's power makes accurate observation impossible, rendering the last act one of the more ambitious and high-stakes "unreliable narrator" bits you're likely to see. There are plenty of more visceral thrills, though - the movie may not have a cast large enough to be doing kills willy-nilly, but it has plenty of ways to make the audience feel unnerved or jump. It's also worth noting that the chunk of the end credits usually reserved for visual effects companies is missing; Flanagan and his cohorts appear to do a lot of the spooky stuff with in-camera effects and effective editing, and the lack of seams certainly doesn't hurt.

There are perhaps a few way that "Oculus" can be tweaked so that the filmmakers' ambition isn't as potentially in the way as it is here, although I personally found the way that the movie is kind of unconventional beneath being a fun scary story is party of its charm. I'm certainly excited to see where Mike Flanagan goes next; both this and "Absentia" pile some fine thrills on top of a solid foundation, and he handled the jump to a modest budget well. That makes this not just a surprisingly good thriller, but potentially a sign off better to come.

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