OCULUS: Why can’t all horror films be this good?



Oculus (dir. Mike Flanagan)
Director Mike Flanagan’s previous film ABSENTIA is one of the best horror films released in the last ten years.  Because of this, my expectations for OCULUS were sky high.  Imagine my relief when OCULUS not only met, but effortlessly surpassed those expectations.  It is easily the best wide release horror film so far in 2014.
The film’s story initially seems straight forward.  After the violent death of their parents, two siblings are separated for eleven years while the younger brother is institutionalized to process the experience.  The film begins with their reconciliation and the sister’s insistence on investigating the circumstances of their family’s degeneration.  She believes that the antique mirror in her father’s study is to blame for their tragedy, and understandably the psychologically focused brother is not so sure.
Though this is the story, the plot is not so simple.  As the reunited siblings delve further into their memories and into the evening of confronting the possible paranormal influences of the mirror the lines between past and present begin to dissolve.  While never disorienting, the fluidity of time and the connection between their history and current situation takes over to drive both arcs forward.
With all of this temporal tinkering OCULUS explores the reliability of memory.  Can your memories be trusted? If you cannot trust memories, can you trust the reality that is the basis of your memories? One of the beauties of this film is that it asks and fully explores both of these questions.  Though the film never proposes one ultimate uniting truth, this intentional ambiguity never leaves the audience wanting. Rather that failing to explain the actions on those two terrifying nights, it offers several possible explanations.  
Between ABSENTIA and OCULUS Flanagan has established a talent for extracting superior performances from his actors, which is necessary given he creates characters with complicated relationships.  Both films feature a pair of siblings with heavy histories.  Flanagan has perfectly captured the dense nature of brothers and sisters’ connections, all while magically delivering two convincing performances from child actors. Both Katee Sackhoff as the haunted mother in flashbacks and Karen Gillan as the tormented present day Kaylie absolutely blew me away with their committed performances. Both of these women had me utterly convinced that they were possessed, whether it be from personal or literal demons.
Even with the performances and inventive story structure OCULUS makes no secret of the fact that is a proper horror film.  It has effective jump scares scattered throughout the running time, though it does not telegraph them with the musical cues with have been inundated with lately. And the complexity of the interpersonal relationships is not at the cost of beautifully gory and startling visual effects.  The story will stay with the audience long after the screening, and the images burned on their retinas.
Not many wide release films—not just horror films—are as imaginative and innovative in both structure and subjects as OCULUS, and that is a shame.  Audiences are salivating for new films and thankfully Flanagan has emerged as a unique voice in horror today.  

Deirdre Crimmins

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Deirdre (Dede) lives in Chicago (via Boston and Cleveland) with two black cats. She writes for Film Thrills, High Def Digest, The Brattle Theater, Rue Morgue Magazine, Birth.Movies.Death., and anyone else who will let her drone on about genre film. She wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero and is always hopeful that Hollywood will get its head out of its ass.

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