Director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) apparently has not been paying attention to the rules of making mainstream horror movies in America, and that's probably why Oculus is one of the best American horror movies in years.
Oculus doesn't have a serial killer laying ridiculous traps for people. It's not found footage. It doesn't have a cast of sweaty teenagers who look like they've walked off the set of a fashion shoot. It's not a remake, nor is it based on a comic book. It's not a haunted-house movie, and there are no psychos wearing masks trying to invade a home. So what is Oculus? It's an expertly told story about a woman (Karen Gillan) trying to correct a wrong from her childhood by proving her murderous father wasn't a psychopath, but instead possessed by an evil mirror he bought at an auction.
Yes, Oculus is a movie about a woman trying to prove that an old mirror is evil.
I won't be surprised if that description has you hesitant, but hear me out. Mike Flanagan's film is brilliant and inspired and scary and more creative than any other horror movie you're bound to see this year.
What makes Flanagan's film works so well is its unflinching commitment to establishing and then unraveling a scenario where all the tension comes from the idea that a mirror could somehow turn normal people into raving maniacs. It feels like an adaptation of a Stephen King story from the '80s that was never published. However, don't take that to mean that Oculus is just a cheap throwback film trying to prey on your nostalgia for '80s horror movies. That's not even remotely true. All that means is that, like King's stories, the reason it works is because it has realistic characters embracing a potentially absurd scenario with the utmost sincerity. It never winks at the audience, it's never tongue in cheek. It never tries to scare the audience and then go, "Haha, you got scared!" Everyone involved is wholly committed to creating a reality where an evil mirror could exist.
In particular, Karen Gillan just soars in this movie as a young woman fiercely devoted to first proving that this mirror is evil, and then destroying it. She's the lightning rod for everything in the movie, and she anchors the entire proceedings with a confidence and a charisma that's just remarkable. It's a smart, well-written female character brought to vivid life by an actress who could sell light to the sun. And she's not the only noteworthy performer in the film. Katee Sackhoff also gives an excellent turn as her ill-fated mother, Brenton Thwaites has the appropriately weary disbelief of her beleaguered brother, and Rory Cochrane nails the calm insanity of the father.
Basically, everyone is on the same page throughout Oculus, and it means there's never any deviation from the course Flanagan is charting. It's weird that sincerity is a refreshing trait for horror movies these days, but sadly it is. The only weak link here is whether or not you're interested in a movie like Oculus in the first place. If all you want are jump scares and gore, you're going to want to look elsewhere. If you want a fantastical horror movie about people trying to cope with evil in the world, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better horror movie this year.
Note: This review was originally published on 3/13/14 and is being reposted to coincide with the film's theatrical release.
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