Oculus is torn between two extremes. On the one hand, it’s an ambitious horror film that engages with questions of perception and subtext, while throwing all manner of horror tropes together to form something of a horror movie stew. On the other hand, it rather quickly devolves into a fairly generic horror film that coasts on gore to unsettle the audience and always takes the easiest possible scare. Oculus is at its best during its muddled and exposition-filled opening acts.
While certainly flawed, these segments have an endearing substance to them. In contrast, Oculus is at its worst in the obligatory third act run-around.
Oculus opens with as a messy and muddled mystery. It gives us two siblings dealing with the consequences of a horrific incident from their childhood. In order to preserve the suspense and build a sense of unease, both characters tend to speak in sentences that trail off frustratingly. Revisiting the old family home, the sister remarks, “That’s right. You haven’t been here since…” Over the course of the film, the sentences get gradually longer, with each additional clause providing a bit more context.
It’s a clumsy way to build a mystery, and there’s always a sense that Oculus isn’t quite as smart is it would like to be. It’s a movie packed with clever ideas about how to make a horror film, but without the skill or the wit to execute them. The movie’s most ambitious attribute is its structure. The audience finds themselves jumping through time, witnessing the horrific events that occurred over a decade earlier while also following the two lead characters as they try to make things right.
It’s an ambitious structure, and one that almost immediately gives Oculus an advantage over standard horror films. Starting with at least one lead character who knows the true horror at the start of the film, the movie spares us twenty awkward minutes of characters failing to realise that they’re in a horror movie. Our lead character knows that she is starring in a horror film, and acts accordingly. She is prepared for the stock tropes. When the power inevitably goes out, she already has portable lights set up. When bulbs blow, she has replacements handy.
There are a whole host of intriguing elements to this, and there’s a sense that Oculus could have made a fantastic horror movie if the writers had been afforded a few more drafts. A horror movie dealing with the aftermath of a horrific incident, as if a sequel to some film never produced? That’s a great idea in theory, even if the results are disappointing. A protagonist who is incredibly genre savvy to the point of insisting on objective verification of the horror? That’s fantastic, even if it makes the eventual horror movie mistakes even more unforgivable.
Most interesting is the way that Oculus plays with the idea of horror films as articulations of underlying fears. The most effective scenes in the movie come early on, as the two siblings try to explain a family tragedy. The sister insists that there were paranormal forces at work – possession, haunting, manipulation, spectres. The brother insists that they concocted that narrative as a way of coping with horrors much harder to process.
This is a delightfully self-aware riff on the horror genre, which always works best when grounded in real world concerns – there’s always an inkling of some real horror lurking behind the best monsters. Oculus throws just about every real world fear into the background of its central family. The movie doesn’t develop many of them particularly well, but it does group them together with an incredible efficiency.
There’s a hint of reproductive horror in the c-section scar across the mother’s abdomen. There’s a sense of economic pressure as the family moves into a new house, the mother frets over bills and the father locks himself in the study. There’s the fear that those people who we trust to protect us might brutally turn on us that underscores this tragic tale, that the home might become a grotesque tomb. There’s the hint of a family breakdown caused by an affair, something any children would struggle to reconcile.
The siblings argue about this. The brother insists that the demons or monsters at the centre of Oculus are merely an attempt to process these sorts of real-life problems. The sister stands her ground, seeking to prove that these horrors are literal and not just a prism through which these more mundane problems were filtered. Oculus comes quite close to working as it plays on this ambiguity, cleverly engaging with the subtext that underpins so many successful horror films.
Unfortunately, it can’t stick the landing. These interesting ideas create their own problems. While that ambiguity and subtext is intriguing, the movie drops it quite quickly. The scares become a lot less psychological and a lot more rote. Despite our protagonist’s foresight and planning, the siblings quickly fall prey to all manner of bargain-basement horror clichés. “We should stick together,” she suggests as things start to get weird. That’s good advice. However, as it would hinder the movie’s scares, the duo almost immediately separate.
In fact, the film doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap scare, and quite a few of the “twists” are incredibly predictable. The film lacks the patience and the confidence to set up scares to pay off much later in the film – allowing elements to boomerang back and catch the audience off guard. Instead, scares are set up and paid off almost immediately, right when the audience most expects them.
This isn’t the only problem. The film’s structure is exciting – allowing past future to overlap – but the film isn’t skilled enough to pay off that excitement. Jumping between past and present, the movie struggles to maintain suspense and tension in both time frames. The movie tries to preserve a sense of mystery about what happened all those years ago, but it has to surrender the exposition eventually. Once our leads have acknowledged the horrific events that occurred in the family home, the flashbacks become largely redundant.
Once the film gives the audience those details, the game is largely up. Not only do the audience – and the characters – know how events played out, but we know the cause and we know that the resolution must be. The movie would be much stronger if it exorcised those flashbacks, or at least repurposed them. As it stands, they exist primarily to demonstrate horrors that have already been clearly articulated in an exposition dump that takes place half-an-hour into the film. It feels pointless. It exists purely to show the audience some disturbing imagery already articulated in dialogue.
Indeed, Oculus seems to revel in its more grotesque visuals. While by no means excessively gory, it is much more comfortable with graphic violence and blood than many of the more recent family horror films like Sinister or Insidious. This makes the movie feel considerably cheaper than it should; despite an intriguing set up, Oculus revels in portraying brutality and violence that has already been revealed through dialogue or exposition. The film feels almost sadistic in this way – aiming for blatant gross-out shocks rather than anything more profoundly unsettling.
There’s nothing wrong with this of itself. It is just frustrating in a film that works so hard to establish itself as wry and self-aware. Gross-out scares are great for drawing an immediate reaction from the audience, but Oculus never properly realises any more substantial form of terror. Given the engaging set-up of the film, it feels like Oculus lacks faith in itself and is trying too hard to compensate.
Oculus has any number of great ideas. Unfortunately, it lacks the skill or the confidence to pull them off.