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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “Oculus”

Horror films don’t get a lot of critical respect. As a result, it takes some effort to separate the wheat from the chaff — to figure out which horror films might be worth seeing, and which can be dismissed as utter garbage. The new horror film “Oculus” got some good reviews, but it also got some bad reviews. Did it merit a trip to the theater? I decided there was only one way to find out, and so on Tuesday night my horror-movie loving friend Sue and I headed to Crossgates.

“Oculus” is a pretty good horror movie — better than its detractors have given it credit for, but not the modern-day classic its most ardent fans seem to think it is. Sue and I also questioned whether it should be labeled a horror movie at all, as it’s not very scary.

“I think it’s more of a psychological thriller, with horror elements,” she said.

This is an apt description — at times, it reminded me of the 2013 film “Stoker,” with its chilling examination of a twisted, dysfunctional family, and shifting sense of who is the craziest of them all. In any case, people looking for a scary good time might be disappointed, but those seeking a film that tells a good story, creates interesting characters, contains compelling visuals and masterfully builds suspense are sure to appreciate “Oculus.” And unlike many films of this ilk, its ending is surprisingly powerful.

“Oculus” tells the story of an evil mirror, and the havoc it wreaks on a stable middle-class suburban family, the Russells. Which isn’t nearly as ridiculous as it sounds, because the mirror in “Oculus” is quite creepy. The film opens with the Russell son, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), getting released from a psychiatric hospital and reuniting with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Kaylie believes that the evil mirror is responsible for her father going berserk 10 years prior and torturing and killing their mother; Tim believes that she has repressed her memories of what really happened and has invented a crazy story to explain their father’s sick behavior.

Who’s right? One of the things that makes “Oculus” interesting is that it keeps you wondering. Because “Oculus” is a horror movie, SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! Kaylie’s version of events is almost certainly correct. But it’s also totally insane and easy to doubt, especially when she’s being interrogated by the relentlessly rational Tim.

Kaylie has purchased the evil mirror at auction, and enlists her brother to help her destroy it. They return to the house where they grew up, and she reveals the elaborate system she’s rigged up to document their night with the mirror. While this drama is playing out, “Oculus” jumps back in time, and we gradually learn about the horrible things that befell the Russell family after the father hung the evil mirror in his office. Naturally, the storylines converge, ending in tragedy simultaneously.

Because “Oculus” is well-acted and well-crafted, it is never anything less than compelling. But it does suffer from some lapses of logic, and much of the plot hinges on the poor decision-making of the characters. Which isn’t unusual for a horror movie, but still: Why does Kaylie believe that retrieving the evil mirror and bringing it back to the house where it destroyed her family is a good idea? Why does she think returning to the house and confronting the mirror is an appropriate course of action for her mentally fragile brother? Why does Tim go along with her scheme? (One possible answer to all three questions: Because Tim and Kaylie are insane.)

“Oculus” might have been a little better if it was a little leaner — if director Mike Flanagan had pared back some of the action scenes (the characters spend a lot of time running around the house and gazing creepily at each other in the second half of the film) and cut down on some of the weird effects (the glowing eyes are a bit much).

Sue felt that the film attempted to combine an origin story with a character study, and gave short shrift to both. For instance, we learned very little about the true nature of the evil inhabiting the mirror, and I don’t think the word oculus is ever spoken in the film. Of course, such holes leave the door more than open to a sequel. And I think Sue and I both felt that “Oculus” swung back and forth between original and derivative, with certain scenes feeling fresh and exciting, and others feeling borrowed from better horror movies, such as “The Shining.”

What makes the mirror so diabolical is its ability to make people turn against their loved ones and kill them. We see SPOILER ALERT! Kaylie accidentally murder her fiance, thinking he’s some kind of evil spirit and, in the film’s heartbreaking final scene, Tim accidentally murder Kaylie. Which just goes to show that evil mirrors are not to be messed with.

Much like the 2013 horror film “Mama,” “Oculus” derives its haunting powerful from its clear-eyed depiction of the destruction of a happy nuclear family by a supernatural force. We’re so rooting for Tim and Kaylie to succeed and live happily ever after that their failure is undeniably sad. As horror movies (or psychological thrillers with mournful elements) go, “Oculus” is unexpectedly mournful.

Maybe the inevitable sequel will be more upbeat. Or maybe it won’t.

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