Monday, 1 December 2014

Oculus (2014) - Movie Review

There are two film production companies that I have grown to be extremely cautious of: Summit Entertainment and WWE Studios. Summit, even without bringing Twilight into discussion, helped bring Alex Cross, Warm Bodies and Divergent among others to audiences; and WWE Studios focuses mainly on films starring wrestlers who aren’t Dwayne Johnson. Whenever I see their respective logos before a movie, I get a mild bit of cinematic PTSD and understandably so far as I’m concerned. However, expectations shouldn’t dictate a person’s opinion on a film entirely; hell, the last film Summit released was John Wick, which is a great movie. Do we get another tradition breaker here?

The plot: Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) return to their childhood home 11 years after their father went insane and killed their mother, in the hopes that Kaylie can put an end to the thing responsible: A haunted mirror. As the two argue over what really happened, strange things begin happening in the house; but is it because of the mirror, or is it all in their heads?

The main thing that drew me to this film, the thing that got me to overlook that WWE Studios was attached to it, was Karen Gillan in one of the lead roles: Sci-fi nerds will remember her as Amy Pond from Doctor Who and almost everything else will remember her as Nebula from Guardians Of The Galaxy. Brenton Thwaites… last thing I saw him in was The Giver, so not as excited at seeing him on screen again. However, they do very well in their roles, both on their own as well as when conversing with each other. They fulfil the typical roles one would expect in this kind of ‘haunted object’ horror story of the believer and the sceptic, but the way they’re written actually makes both of their sides even out.

Both of them fill in the blanks what’s happening in the house with over-rationalisation, with Kaylie going with the mirror and its history as her evidence and Tim using basic psychology and logic as his; however, neither of them come off as entirely rational though, as both of them do feel like they’re trying to make sense of that which cannot be explained as best they can. Kaylie, given her role as the believer that brings the experiment together, had to be both in control and erratic at the same time and Karen does that without even breaking a sweat. Brenton, while mostly playing second fiddle to Karen by bouncing off of what she says, also has his own share of good moments in terms of reacting to what’s happening around him. Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, who play their parents, are put through the slow descent into madness a la Amityville Horror and both do really well with their respective depressive and manic portrayals.

Horror works in a similar fashion to comedy: The less you are able to see coming, the better. With this in mind, this psychological piece does not relent in messing with the audience’s heads and make them question the film's reality along with the characters. Even after finishing the movie, there are still some parts of it that I am unsure on whether or not they actually happened. To make this better, because of how well the writing and acting are, this film can easily go either way. With most horror films of this nature, given how bluntly they are written, the sceptic is usually shown to be a complete idiot because they are objecting to weird crap happening even when it makes no sense for them to. Here, it is refreshingly balanced in both Tim and Kaylie’s viewpoints, and the unrelenting misdirection on both sides of the fence just makes it that much more of a head trip and keeps the audience guessing on what will be the end result.

Given how heavily the plot involves documenting the mirror and what it can do, this so very easily could have been just another Paranormal Activity clone in terms of cinematography. Thankfully, however, Intrepid Pictures (one of the other production companies backing this aside from WWE Studios) only agreed to help produce it so long as it wasn’t found footage, a great move on two fronts: One, because it gives the director more freedom to pull off some of the more creepy visuals we see here; and two, because it helps give the film some variety to distance it from a lot of recent horror films that have jumped on the PA bandwagon.

It also puts a lot more focus on atmosphere and a lingering feeling of dread instead of jump scares and going with several short bursts of tension in a row. The director hacks into some very visceral feelings in order to get that atmosphere across; whenever a person is shown injured and bloodied up, it’s more likely than not from something that is way too easy to envision the feeling of in your head. The music also does a good job punctuating the action on screen, with a mixture of anxious string sections and downplayed techno beats that don’t overshadow what’s happening at any point but rather accompanies it.

All in all, if you like films that mess with your head while and even a bit after watching them, this is definitely one to check out. While it does carry some ‘haunted object’ horror tropes on its back, the writing, acting and overall direction make this an intense mental thrill ride.

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