Oculus isn’t incoherent in terms of it overloading us with supernatural instances, but its slowburn narrative would halfway suggest a more explained and elaborated story.”

Oculus is a commendable horror film for its use of impending dread, suspense, and slowburn storytelling, but simply can’t get past its shortcomings in the character and narrative department. It concerns the terribly troubled Russell family, which experienced tragedy eleven years ago when Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) shot his father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after he witnessed him killing the mother of him and his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Tim was shipped off to a mental hospital, where he believed that his parents’ deaths were due to an evil, supernatural entity inside a possessed antique mirror that had been kept in their home for years.

Oculus concerns the time after Tim is released from the psyche ward, where his only goal is to lead a normal life. However, Kaylie now believes the antique mirror in their house is possessed as well. Kaylie has gone through extreme ends to prove this, staging a large, all-encompassing experiment in her home with cameras, audio recordings, and monitors that will capture the mirror’s evildoings on camera. Tim is highly critical of this process, but Kaylie believes he has just been brainwashed by the institution to cease his questioning of strange events that plagued their childhood.

Directed by
Mike Flanagan
Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
Release Date
11 April 2014
Steve’s Grade: C

Never in years would I think I’d be describing a horror film where the central antagonist/supernatural villain is an allegedly-possessed, antique mirror, but here it is, and I’m giving it a mildly favorable review in addition. For starters, Oculus works wonders with its slowburn narrative style, where things aren’t rushed into, and writers Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard don’t mind taking time and letting suspense build and allowing some exposition to flourish before the supernatural occurrences begin. Furthermore, Flanagan brings an assured visual flair to the framing and the clarity to the images in Oculus, working alongside Walking Dead cinematographer Michael Fimognari.

However, forces supernatural and not supernatural work against Oculus, such as its lack of a compelling, likable character. The whole Russell family needs an attitude adjustment, each one as morose and unlikable as the next: the father is inconsiderate and wholly unsympathetic as he neglects his children, the mom is also careless, Kaylie is annoying whether she’s young or old in her dictative ways, and Tim, while the most sympathetic of the bunch by far, becomes overbearing with his contrarian attitude.
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With that said, Flanagan and Howard also make this premise difficult to digest, making the timeline of events overly-confusing and the events taking place difficult to believe and have an opinion on since the underlying subtext of this film indicates that this could all be some supernatural vision or occurrence in a totally different realm of life. I am beginning to deeply detest the incoherent path these supernatural films are beginning to take and then proceed to haphazardly justify. For me, this was the same issue with Insidious: Chapter 2, a series which this picture seems to want to emulate in terms of design, structure, and success. The aforementioned film featured little aside from loud noises, some interesting eeriness to its supernatural instances, and a third act entirely comprised of incoherent, maddening paranormal insanity.

Oculus isn’t incoherent in terms of it overloading us with supernatural instances, but its slowburn narrative would halfway suggest a more explained and elaborated story. Instead, the waters of the film are still murky, with the ambiguity and constant thoughts that buzz in our mind about whether or not these events are really occurring. I’ve entertained the thought that if Oculus had been released in 2010, around the same time the first Insidious was released when supernatural films were far less common, maybe I would’ve enjoyed it more like I did Insidious for its ingenuity and craft.

In 2014, after watching a countless number of these films, I see Oculus as only a halfway-decent attempt at the supernatural genre, which, frankly, I’d rather see in a coffin before the found-footage genre. Flanagan may very well find a name alongside contemporaries such as Rob Zombie, Ti West, Adam Wingard, and James Wan as men who have found new ways and techniques to liven the slumping horror genre, but Oculus won’t be the film to emphasize and affirm Flanagan’s honor, at least in my book.

by Steve Pulaski