Movie Review: Oculus (TIFF 2013)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has been locked up in a mental hospital since he was nine years old, when he apparently shot his father (Rory Cochrane) who had just killed his mother (Katee Sackhoff). He's released after his 21st birthday, and reunites with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who explains to him that their father was actually possessed by an evil spirit that lives in an antique mirror. Now Kaylie, an antiques dealer, has finally gotten her hands on the mirror and wants Tim's help destroying it.

REVIEW: Of all the films to play this year's edition of Midnight Madness at TIFF, Mike Flanagan's OCULUS was certainly the cleverest, and arguably the most entertaining. Movies about evil spirits possessing a family member are a dime a dozen these days, but what makes OCULUS stand apart from the pack is that any kind of possession is never explicitly proved to be happening, leaving whether or not anything supernatural is actually occurring up to the audience for the majority of the film's running time.

To achieve this, OCULUS tells two stories at once, juxtaposing the story of Tim and Kaylie's violent childhood against their efforts as adults to prove their father was not the monster he's been depicted as, by destroying the antique mirror they believe controlled him. Both parts of the film are equally absorbing, although the deck might be stacked slightly due to Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff's involvement as Tim and Kaylie's parents.

Cochrane has always been one of my favorite “that guy” actors, from DAZED & CONFUSED, through THE PRIME GIG and even his “other” TIFF movie, PARKLAND, where he played the over-ambitious Dallas coroner. This is a major showcase role for him, having to both garner the audience's sympathy as the father, who may be a victim of possession, while also maintaining some semblance of reality in the role which will keep us guessing as to whether he's crazy or not. Sackhoff is also very good- in a huge departure from her part as Starbuck on BATTLESTAR:GALACTICA- playing the nurturing mother, who slowly loses her mind and becomes a victim, possibly of her husband, possibly of something else.

Certainly, if you're a horror buff, you can expect all the hallmarks of the genre here, with scenes frequently being shown with the supernatural elements explicit, while others try to put a more reality based spin on the same events. It's a clever touch, and makes OCULUS stand apart from the pack somewhat by making things ambiguous.

The current-day segments of the film, with Thwaits and Gillian feel like a bit of a take-off on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, with Gillian's character cleverly taking all the precautions in their attack on the supernatural that are often conveniently overlooked in the genre. Thwaits has a nice Anthony Perkins-type feel as the nice-guy Tim, who after years being locked up, just wants to reestablish some normalcy in his life. His performance reminded me a little of Perkins' wounded-bird approach in the underrated PSYCHO II.

For her part, Gillian is the exact opposite, playing Kaylie as aggressive and clever, having spent all of her formative years desperately trying to clear her family's name, and never for one second believing the now-skeptical Tim, who thinks she's losing her mind.

I'd say Flanagan's film probably stacks the deck somewhat on the side of the supernatural pretty early on, but OCULUS is refreshing in that it's the one horror movie I've seen lately that leaves things open to interpretation by the audience. With Relativity having picked up the U.S rights, it'll likely get a big theatrical push at some point, and is definitely a classy, sophisticated horror ride that could connect with audiences in a big way.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.