by Patrick Bromley
For 95% of its running time, the new horror movie Oculus is one of the best Stephen King stories that Stephen King never wrote. It's all there: the childhood trauma, the vow to come back and finish business as an adult, psychotic dad, ordinary object personified as "evil." Then the last couple of minutes piss most of that away with a denouement that's neither clever nor inspired (I'm reminded of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, in which we're told "It's the wind, it's the wind" over and over only to have the big reveal to be "It's the wind" -- not that Oculus deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as The Happening) and which doesn't so much betray what has come before as much as our investment in it.
The movie tells two parallel stories: in 2002, a couple (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) move into a new house and buy some new furniture, including a large antique mirror that begins to have an unusual effect on daddy. In 2013, the kids (now played by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) return to their childhood home to finish what they started. Older sister Kaylie has a well organized plan to destroy the mirror and prove that it was responsible for the death of her parents -- her dad wasn't crazy. Younger brother Tim is less willing to buy into the "evil mirror" theory, but that's because he's just spent a decade in a psychiatric hospital for shooting and killing his dad as a kid and is feeling a little protective of his grip on reality.
This material is broken up by flashbacks that fill in the gaps of what happened to Tim and Kaylee as kids. Here's the problem with this approach, and ultimately the biggest problem with Oculus: it offers no surprises. That doesn't mean it traffics too much in the familiar. It's made well enough to overcome any of the cliches it might embrace. The problem is that the flashbacks only show us exactly what has already been explained in the dialogue -- the equivalent of someone telling you a 90 second story and then spending 45 minutes acting the same story out for you. For it to work, what we see playing out would have to differ in some way from how the story is set up; it's in those differences where the real story of Oculus -- what the movie is actually about -- would be discovered.
So can a movie be considered successful if it offers a lot of good setup but blows the execution? In the case of Oculus, it's more than just a bad scene or two -- it's that the chosen ending fails to give meaning to the overall movie. Still, I see enough horror films that don't get nearly as much right as much as this one does -- especially studio horror (this one is being released by Blumhouse and WWE Studios, making it WWE's best release to date), which is most often messy enough that a blown ending is the least of its concerns. For most of its running time, Oculus is made with real confidence. It's creepy and involving and features one very good performance by Katee Sackhoff who, as they say, commits to the bit. There are plenty of good reasons to see it. There's just not enough to make it all stick.
Oculus manages to be that rare pleasant surprise that's also frustratingly disappointing. It has the chance to be something genuinely special in its reach but lets it slip from its fingers at the last possible moment. A bad ending can't kill a movie, but a bad ending that recasts the entire movie as something lesser can certainly damage it. I spent most of Oculus thinking I was watching one film, only to learn in the end that I was mistaken. I like the movie I thought I was watching better.
* The big selling point of Oculus is that it stars Amy Pond from Doctor Who and Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Fuck the Marvel movies; this is the fanboy event of 2014. Sadly, they never share any scenes together. And no one from Star Trek shows up. Talk about a missed opportunity.
I caught this over the weekend and totally agree, Patrick. It felt like it was building suspense and would lead to something more epic, not a twist per-say because that probably would have been even worse, but something that supported the tone and the billing as a "horror" film. I liked the film, but I was left feeling empty at the end and I do not really think this is a horror film. Felt more like a mystery/thriller.ReplyDelete
Frankly I'm surprised it's even as good as you're saying - looks very generic from the trailers - I'll probably wait for a rental, especially in the hopes of it including an alternate, better cut.ReplyDelete
Too bad WWE seems to have trouble sticking the landing - the ending issues remind me of The Call - a decent little thriller that I was mostly on board with that then completely goes off the rails in the last 10 minutes and left me feeling like I'd just watched a kinda stupid movie.
I agree that The Call is a stupid movie. Like, really stupid. I actually thought the ending was the best stuff, only because it was so loony that it pushed the movie into a crazy place that I wish the rest of the movie would have existed.Delete
Agree with "The Call" as well, Sol. Terrible ending. I had high hopes since that was a Brad Anderson film; Session 9, The Machinist, Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, Transiberian, all of which I enjoy. But then he did the awful "Vanishing on 7th Street" so I was hoping for a return to form with The Call. No dice.Delete
Ha - yeah I can see that. For me it was a lazy, easily-digestible Sunday morning movie that went just a bit too loony, but I agree that it probably would've been better had the whole thing been like that.Delete
Shit I didn't even realize it was Brad Anderson - I can't believe the same guy that made The Machinist (my favourite of his) also made The Call - bummer!Delete
Great review, I agree that the setup and atmosphere were there, but the movie didn't deliver. I thought the continual focus on backstory was interesting, but agree it took away from needed tension. Although it has its moments, I think its slightly dissapointing based on the exectations and early praiseReplyDelete
Maybe next time u watch a movie throw out all outside expectations, and view it clear of anyone else's versions of what should be happening possibly clouding your judgement of the movie. I'm just saying.Delete
the background on this website disturbs me for some reason.ReplyDelete
This movie is as awesome as drag me to hell was. That being said do everything you can to avoid this stupid movie. I will never regain the time spent watching this. Do not waist your timeReplyDelete
I'm watching this movie right now. It's F*cking stupid.ReplyDelete
This Anonymous guy seems like a real dick.ReplyDelete
I agree with the review... i liked the movie i thought i was watching. However i took the ending as a segway to a sequel. Barely. But i can tell there will b another one. It will only be as good as the first one if the stories connect.... Sort of liKe a part 1 part 2 type of story. If that makes senseReplyDelete
I liked this movie very much. I also had no problems with the ending. I found this very clever constructed and perfectly edited with the constant switches between past and present.ReplyDelete
I also liked all the thought Kaylie must have put into setting everything up to destroy the mirror and at the same time proving that Tim is not guilty of killing their father. Good girl.
It was just great to watch, the total opposite of my reaction to films like The Conjuring, Insidious or Paranormal Activity, that simply don´t work for me.
So, to me it was a really nice surprise.