Review: Katee Sackhoff and Karen Gillan both do strong work in creepy ‘Oculus’

TORONTO – One of the reasons people often seem frustrated by horror films is because of how often certain tropes are trotted out and dressed up for new audiences, and at some point, it starts to feel like you’ve seen every variation, every interpretation, and it just becomes familiar and numbing. The truth, of course, is that good storytelling is good storytelling, and familiarity does not have to be a bad thing by definition. Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” is a strong example of how you can take something that sounds familiar and, by focusing on performance and the small details, create something that elevates formula.

Director Mike Flanagan, working from a script he co-wrote with Jeff Howard, tells a pretty conventional haunted house story in an unconventional way, and it’s so smartly built, so smoothly handled, that you may not realize that about 90% of the film takes place inside this one house. I’ve seen plenty of low-budget films that were restricted to that sort of space because of money, and they don’t know how to keep it interesting, but Flanagan does an exceptional job of not just effectively managing the space, but also juggling chronology. The film begins with a dream involving a man, a gun, and two kids, and as it reaches the culmination, we cut to a psychiatrist’s office, where Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites, who has the best haircut I’ve ever seen on a mental patient in a movie) is describing the dream to his therapist. Tim’s just turned 21, and his doctor believes that he has been cured and is ready to be released to the world again.

Tim is picked up outside the hospital by his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), and as soon as they’re alone together, she begins to talk to him about how it’s time to fulfill a promise they made to each other. It’s apparent that Tim is uncomfortable with whatever she’s talking about, and that Kaylie isn’t exactly a model of mental health herself. She’s engaged to be married, and her fiancee Michael (James Lafferty) seems like he’s trying to be patient while she works through some things. Kaylie tells her brother that she’s tracked down a specific antique mirror, and she arranged for the auction house where she works to sell it. It went for a ton of money, and she uses a small crack in the glass as an excuse to take it offsite to get it repaired.

The thing is, she has no intention of repairing it. She wants to destroy it, and she needs Tim’s help to do so. She takes Tim back to the house where they lived when whatever happened happened, and we begin to move backwards and forwards in time, seeing Young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Young Tim (Garrett Ryan) move in with their dad Alan (Rory Cochrane) and their mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff). We see that Alan bought that same mirror and hung it in his office, never realizing that it would lead to madness, torture, horror and death.

One of the things that Flanagan and Howard do well in the script is make sure that Kaylie does not come across as a dummy who has no idea how to battle the evil she claims lives in the mirror. Quite the contrary. As adults, she and Tim go into this situation with eyes wide open. She plans for everything, and she’s done a ton of research into the history of the mirror so she has some very strong ideas about what it can or can’t do. She wants to give the thing no room to fight, no way to resist. Her plans seem meticulous, but unfortunately, the mirror isn’t interested in a fair fight, either, and it may be stronger.

Even though we know where the storyline in the past is headed, we don’t know how it will get there specifically, and Flanagan does a really nice job of handling the two distinct timelines, letting them bounce off each other, gradually escalating until they seem to merge into one horrible sad present, the past bleeding through like a stain you can’t scrub away. Sackhoff’s never really played anything like this character that I’ve seen, and she really nails the sadness and the fear, the way madness gets hold of this woman, ruining her slowly. I love Rory Cochrane in “Dazed and Confused,” but I think he did such a good job of playing Slater in that film that people might have thought that was really him. He also does really strong work here as a father losing his grip on himself and his family, and I like how he never goes over the top with it. It’s a tough role to get right, and Cochrane does well, particularly once he starts the free fall from sanity.

For fans of “Doctor Who,” it may take a while to get past their impressions of her as Amy Pond, because it’s been such a defining moment for the young actor. But she is very good in this, and I like the way she plays the balance of fear and anger and sorrow, and I love that they make her hyper-competent instead of just some victim. She is my favorite thing about the movie, and it gives me faith that she’s going to build a real career for herself, and that “Who” wasn’t just her one big moment.

Cinematographer Michael Fimognari has been working nonstop for a while now, but out of all the films I’ve seen that he’s shot, “Oculus” is easily the most effective. This movie has style to spare, but never at the expense of a moment. It’s not about the style, as is true with many horror films, but is instead in service of the story. This couldn’t have been a wildly expensive movie, and once again, I’m glad they didn’t try to do the found footage version of this, which probably would have cost roughly the same, but it would have forced them to play everything for the camera. Kaylie does set up cameras in the house to record what’s happening, but that never becomes the focus of the film. Overall, it’s a very slick package, but it has a real human heart. Sure, it tore it out of someone’s chest, but it still counts.

“Oculus” is looking for US distribution, and considering Thwaites is Prince Phillip in Disney’s “Maleficent” and Gillan is one of the stars of “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” now would be a good time for a distributor to pick it up and get ready to cash in on what may be a very big 2014 for the young actors.