I read today that two thirds of the UK are overweight and a quarter is obese. So I mean this only factually when I say that the three physically obese punters rolled into the screening of Oculus twenty minutes late failed to ruin my enjoyment of the film. But not for want of trying. They munched their way through what seemed like half the food counter, made “jokes” at the screen about unfolding events which even they didn’t find funny, and one of them, of course, sat there checking updates on her phone because why not spend money to see the silver screen and then spend then spend the entire time staring at the little blue screen?
This all culminated in the biggest of them fake laughing at a pivotal moment at the climax of the film to impress her mates. It impressed no one, but the guy behind her gave her a large kick in the back of the chair which shut her ignorant face for the rest of the film. She was just lucky I had no Haribo on me.
Not that Cineworld, Shaftesbury Avenue were really helping with the experience. Since when was it common practice to put the house lights up before the end of the film? Way to ruin the end of a film guys. At least the picture was bright and in focus which makes a change.
So ignoring the horrors of the cinema going experience there was also the horrors of Oculus. In many ways we are back to one of the great haunted object clichés: the haunted mirror. Like The Monkeys Claw or the China Doll, it’s been around before but unlike, say the haunted lamp stand from the Amityville 4, it is a genuinely spooky object. When you look at an antique mirror with its pitted glass and murky image you are not only looking at yourself but are aware of all the other people who have stared at themselves in it in the past. Early on its history is explained through old photos of its previous owners and victims, and while the idea of a mirror that can kill you is fundamentally ridiculous, this scene doesn’t make it feel like that. Quite the opposite in fact, the grainy old photos of previous owners and their mangled corpses give an unnerving sense of this evil thing working its way through time.
And the use of time is what stops this from feeling like any other ghost story. It creates its structure through a very clever use of flashback, merging two parts of a story into one.
We start in modern times as adult an brother and sister are brought together. Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell seems like a strong successful woman, getting hold of the mirror at an auction house while her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released,rehabilitated, from a mental institution after ten years. Upon meeting, Kaylie persuades Tim to meet at their old parents house, where they will prove that what happened to their folks was the result of the evil mirror and not their evil father. Then they will destroy the mirror using an elaborate pulley and anchor system that seems like a terrible idea to me.
There is a brief moment as Gillan shows her brother how she’s set up loads of video cameras when I feared the film would drift into found footage territory. Fortunately that’s not the case and the cameras are used to visualise that what we see isn’t always what is happening. This seems to be the main theme of the film. From here on in we flashback to eleven years previously to when they were kids and findout what the mirror did to their parents. But Tim remembers things differently from his sister, in his mind the mirror is just Kaylie’s excuse for his father’s evil actions. They have different memories of events in the past, but also also are having differnt experiences now. Kaylie gets phone she can’t possibly get, they moving furniture around with out noticing they are doing it, they think they are by themselves when they are in the same room. It is all part of the mirrors and the filmmakers way of misdirecting them and us. This mostly works, leaving us quite unsure of what is real and what isn’t, but in a way that you can still follow the plot, or indeed plots.
Because the story of eleven years ago and what is happening now run concurrently with each other throughout the movie. At first we just flip between the two time frames but as things progress the two stories start to overlap, with Tim watching his younger self hiding from his father, or the adult Kaylie being attacked by her long dead mother.
There is a long midsection, as the film finds its groove, where all this back and forth section works amazingly well. We’ll stay with the children versions of events long enough to understand the fear and helplessness they are going through as their parents are destroyed by the mirror before flipping back to the current time and watch the now adults battle with their own mentally fragile states. And then we’ll go back again. And then again. If it doesn’t quite sustain the suspense to the end it’s maybe because the climax goes exactly where you thought it would from right early on which is a slight disappointment. Or maybe it’s because my obese friends in the row in front of me couldn’t keep quiet by that point.
I’d just like to point out at this time that if you’re unable to keep quiet for an hour and a half then I presume you have concentration issues. There can be a number of reasons for this, ADHD (or naughtiness as its know in some circles), you might be drunk, be suffering from tourette syndrome or maybe you’re just thick. Judging by what these people were saying I’m going with thick.
Anyway, Oculus’s great structure is also a good way to disguise the low budget of the film. By having it over these two time periods it makes you forget that it essentially set in one location and with only four main characters. In fact the vast majority is really just set in the study where the mirror is hanging, not that you’d notice with all the tooing and frowing.
Also, the acting is excellent, the two kids playing young Kaylie and Tim capture perfectly both the dynamics that a brother and sister have, as well as the fear of their lives being destroyed by either their parents secrets or other unknown forces. The always great Katee Sackhoff plays their mum, throwing her all into what starts off as a rather standard loving Mom and then, well, goes elsewhere. Slightly disconcertingly Rory Cochrane as the father of the house looks scarily like an older Danny Dyer but lets not hold that against him.
Then there’s Karen Gillan. No one can deny that her American accent comes and goes all over the place in early parts of the film. But she also is able to bring a lot of charm and confidence to the character, which the mirror gradually breaks down to a fearful wreck of a woman. Essentially the film’s star, in her first American lead role she has great screen presence, just a few more lessons with a dialect coach might be in order.
Overall I really like Oculus, even in amongst all the glut of films of this sub-genre there’s a real effort to tell a story well and tell it differently. The ghosts are pretty creepy too.
Of course, as this is part of the modern movie haunting cycle there has to be an unnecessary dog death in it. But Oculus goes all out and has not one dogs but two. Fortunately the second dog, which is a Boston terrier my favourite type of alien-disguised-as-a-dog, manages to high-tail it out of there the first chance it gets. Things don’t work out so well for the labrador but at least its off screen and doesn’t end up gutted and hanging from a tree like most horror movie dogs.
Perhaps that’s what modern cinemas need, an evil haunted object that will attack those cinema goers that disturb it while watching a film. Those three loud folk gutted and hanging from a tree might be a good warning to those in the future who would threaten to spoil others enjoyment. Perhaps when I die I will come back and haunt Cineworld, Shaftesbury Avenue, shutting up annoying audience members. It would be more than the staff can be bothered to do.