There’s nothing I appreciate like a well-crafted horror film. Recent stand-outs in my mind are films like the first Paranormal Activity, last year’s Sinister, the latest entry (yes, it was a sequel and not a remake) in the Evil Dead franchise, and Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. So when I see a refreshing and truly enjoyable addition to the genre, I definitely hold it high amongst the rest. Oculus rides the fine line between falling into generic territory and having its own unique tone in comparison to most modern jump-scare extravaganzas. And it’s this teeter-totter effect the film that makes me uncertain whether I love it or just like it.
Oculus is the tale of two siblings, Kaylie and Tim Russell (played by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites), whose mother was apparently murdered when they were children by their father after he purchased a mirror plagued by a violent history of ownership. Since the event, Tim has been incarcerated and Kaylie has tracked the mirror down. After Tim is finally released, Kaylie takes them back to their childhood home to confront and destroy the mirror to prove to both Tim and the world that her father was coerced by a supernatural force. While it sounds cliché, being revolved around a haunted object, many classic horror movies have very simple plots, so I never mind them if it’s clear the movie isn’t going to be entirely constructed by them.
Acting in horror movies is completely hit or miss. So I was happy to hear before this film came out that it had two of my favorite female sci-fi alumni: Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff. Both of which I’ve seen play very strong and independent roles, something that is highly lacking in the horror genre. They are the sole reason I wanted to see this movie, and they didn’t disappoint. Kaylie is introduced and while it takes about 15 minutes for us to discover who she’s really become over the past 11 years. She’s one of those characters who has become a master at her craft and you learn in one scene how prepared she already is for the imminent threat.
Brenton Thwaites is quite enjoyable as Tim, who speaks as the highly logical and rational character for this film. Since Tim was incarcerated in an asylum, he brings an interesting question to the film: what is real? The majority of the movie revolves around making the audience ask whether the events are just a shared psychosis of Kaylie and Tim’s or a series of head games brought on by the mirror. Thwaites does a good job at portraying a conflicted state of mind, as does Gillan, but I do find something lacking in his performance. Maybe him and Karen Gillan didn’t get along the best or something during filming, but I don’t see much chemistry between them. Definitely not the level that the film wants to portray between the siblings.
The only other person I want to touch on is Katee Sackhoff. I know from watching “Battlestar Galactica” that she’s female action-hero material, so seeing her in more normal roles kind of disappoints me. However, with Oculus, she takes the cliché of a suspicious and jealous wife and does an immensely good job with what she’s given to work with and when held up against the normal level of believability this genre presents. Despite a part not as big as I think she deserved, she does it to it’s fullest and was one of my favourite things about the film.
The film presents itself in a dual timeline, portraying the events of Kaylie and Tim’s witness to their father’s descent into madness and also their night at the house 11 years later. This makes the film highly interesting as we aren’t given all the details and as the movie draws towards the finale, revelations are had that bring a whole new light to the context and nature of the events between their parents. I love this style of narrative in films because it draws in your attention and makes details that much more significant and also can add rewatchability to a movie.
The final act to me, while good, goes a little overboard with the dual narrative, confusing the audience as to what is the actual past, what is the actual present, and what’s is Kaylie and Tim’s present hallucinations about the past. It gets a little too jumbled and took me out of the movie while I tried to mentally reconstruct the timeline.
Oculus did a lot of things right, and a couple things not as well, but regardless it’s a good horror film. It doesn’t stand out in my mind as a must-see or a new level of modern horror, but I do think it earns a spot for trying and coming out enjoyable. And from a first-time director it definitely is impressive compared to most efforts from directors with years of experience in the genre. While it does succumb to a few clichés, the film acts as a kind of metaphorical mirror in itself for them: it’s the same thing, but just slightly different.
Show me a movie based on a young adult novel that captures the voice in a simple, mature way, and I’ll show you a surprised critic. Probably a panel of them. But that doesn’t always mean it’s a bad film, which is something worth remembering that, going into a film like “The Giver.”
Based off the famous 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, it follows Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent, Oculus) through the utopian future he lives in. There’s no war, there’s no strife, there’s no pain. In its place is sameness, and a society run by elders (headed by Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt) that — nicely — governs the lives of its citizens so thoroughly it observes them and then assigns them a job when they come of age.
And so Jonas passively accepts his new role to take over for the current Receiver of Memories (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski, True Grit), a rare position that he’s warned will cause pain and isolate him from the rest of society.
Next to a veteran like Bridges — an actor whose permanent disposition is followed by his own drummer — Thwaites’ Jonas seems even more like a sheep getting the wool out of its eyes. As he’s exposed to his first taste of difference, color, and life beyond the society, there’s more and more of Bridges’ natural-Dude persona oozes out of him. His mannerisms are caught somewhere between the actor’s showmanship and the movie’s (intentional, I’m guessing) forced acting. Bridges walks the line the best, staying believable but not revolutionary to the societal norms, where others can’t quite break out of their two-dimensional boxes.
Like most teen films it won’t win any awards for acting. The script just isn’t there for the actors to grow from, but, importantly, the skeleton of the book is. Sure, there’s the compulsorily added romance and action sequence, and ultimately the insightful magic of the novel gets lost in translation. But that’s it. “The Giver” clearly has its heart in the right place (the novel) even if the messages can’t quite be broadcasted in the same way. Director Phillip Noyce has a solid grip on the simple, visual grace of the world; using color and flashbacks to effectively communicate to the audience whether they read the book or not. It’s a shame the Hollywood packaging can’t quite give it enough staying power the novel had.