Oculus (2013): A Study in Perception and Dread

Oculus posterI love a good psychological horror film about as much as I love a good ghost story. In both those sub-genres, you have some question as to the actual nature of the events going on. When done right, it’s the film version of print’s “unreliable narrator” technique. It leaves the characters–and the audience–wondering, at least for a little while, if not indefinitely–whether what they’ve seen happen actually happened.

Oculus is solid example. It has various twists and turns and is all about not being sure if what you’re seeing is real.

The Plot

Tim and Kaylie Russel had a very traumatic time as children. According to the official reports, they both were forced to watch as their father tortured and killed their mother over the course of days (if not longer) and then, presumably in self-defense, Tim killed his father so the siblings could escape.

At first, both maintained that there were supernatural forces at work, ones that twisted perception and drove their parents mad. When pressed, Kaylie drops that part of the story, leaving her brother to be sent away to years of psychiatric care. He’s finally divested himself of the idea that something supernatural went on in his childhood and is released.

When the siblings are reunited, one of the first things Kaylie tells her brother is that she’s tracked down the mirror that started their nightmare and now it’s up to them to destroy it.

Needless to say, Tim is a bit… concerned. And confused. And a bit angry. (All rightfully so, I’d say.)

So begins a journey back into madness and terror where nothing is quiet what it seems and not everyone will make it through the night alive.

Twisted Reflections

I managed to miss Oculus when it was in the theaters and everyone was gushing over it. When I did finally see it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the gushing was worth it. The story twists and turns at just the right times and in just the right ways to keep you on edge, never quite sure what’s real and what’s being imagined–or if anything is real.

There are some truly trippy moments when the psychological rug just gets pulled completely out from under you and the ending is perfectly choreographed, yet still at least moderately surprising–and super effective.

The performances are above average and, for a film with few characters and more or less a single setting, things stay interesting and engaging for it’s entire run. Karen Gillan, at the time likely best known for her run on Doctor Who, not only nails an American accent the entire time, but embodies the frenetic, obsessive, energy of Kaylie in tragic and believable ways. Brenton Thwaites, as Tim, swings back and forth between wanting to believe his sister, despite what he’s just spent a decade or more convincing himself wasn’t true, and wanting to desperately help her escape the delusion that killed their parents.  In flashback sequences, Katee Sackhoff expertly portrays their mother’s descent into a twisted version of herself (a transformation which may or may not have been a result of that ornate mirror).

The Verdict

You will lose track of what’s going on in this movie. That’s on purpose. It’s also what’s happening to the characters. You’re all in the same boat and that ship’s not just sinking, it’s on fire and sinking.

If you can’t handle repeated moments of complete uncertainty, you’ll hate this film. If you don’t mind having the ground you’re trying to walk on be a bit unstable and those little trips and drops get your brain screaming for more, you’ll love this movie.

Most people will fall somewhere in between. They’ll really dig some parts of it and be completely turned off by others. This is one of those movies that surprised everyone by doing as well as it did in theaters, which means it actually did hit on the deep unease a lot of people are experiencing in their real lives.

Definitely check it out… maybe watch it a couple of times, actually. (And since you’ll be watching it at home, don’t hesitate on a second viewing to rewind to double-check those reality switches… they’re very well done.)

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