See this movie: Oculus

Oculus is a cunning, tough horror movie that will leave you unsettled.


When we last left Karen Gillan, the Scottish woman with the big eyes who played Amy Pond in Doctor Who, she was staring at the weeping angels to avoid being sucked back in time (spoiler: she wasn’t successful).

Oculus Gillan

Now, in Oculus, the actress is donning an American accent (competently) as she stares into a haunted British mirror to fight an evil force.

Oculus is the latest horror offering from the forces behind the Saw series (too gory for me) and the Insidious flicks (good, fun horror). I was expecting something along the lines of Insidious. I was not prepared for a dark and harrowing tale of family madness, PTSD and psychological horror.

The setup: Tim is released from a mental hospital. Ten years earlier, he, along with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), witnessed a horrific crime when their mother turned psychotic and was shot by their father. They only survived because Tim killed their father. Tim has been thoroughly rehabilitated. Kaylie, on the other hand, has gotten hold of the evil mirror which may have driven their parents (their mother is played effectively by Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff, aka Starbuck) to madness and death. She intends to defeat the evil that lies inside, along with Tim’s unwilling help.


Oculus was great on two levels.

First, the narrative structure was brilliantly crafted. We bounce back and forth between the present and the original crime 10 years earlier. As the movie progresses, the past and present merge to great effect. And, even though we know the outcome of the events in the past, there’s still heart-pounding tension.

Second, one of the strengths of horror/sci-fi/fantasy is that it gives us the chance to explore common, painful themes in a fantastical setting. Oculus does that. On one level, this is the story of a horrific childhood, mental illness, and the stubborn hold that trauma has on our lives. A good chunk of the film is spent debating reality, for good reason. I enjoy writing about the supernatural because it allows me to explore deeper issues. The writers of Oculus obviously feel the same.

Oculus draws on a rich heritage of horror films. I picked up on the references to The Amityville Horror, a classic movie about possession that scared the life out of me as a kid. It uses these tropes effectively.

My main complaints would be that the Nightmare on Elm Street effects of “is this real or not” were overdone, and the nature of the evil, which was way stronger than our protagonists, was never hinted at (perhaps setting up a sequel). And the title sucks. I keep calling it Ocular. Not good.

Oculus is not an easy movie. It is not an escape. But it shows the power of horror to shine a spotlight on very human terrors.


When it’s dangerous to dream

Dreams in fiction are hard — but not impossible — to pull off.

Why? Two reasons. 1) most dreams are fragmented (to ourselves) and boring (to others), and 2) a book/TV show/movie is essentially a dream: the writer is asking the reader to suspend their disbelief. To add a dream within a dream is tricky, and risks pulling the reader from the main story.

But dreams can be effective. Let’s look at the movies.

Cover of "Inception"

Cover of Inception

Inception was a great film about lucid dreamscapes. The viewer was never sure where reality ended and dreams began, even after the movie ended. Some people hated the whole movie because of this, but for me it worked.

The Nightmare on Elm Street series wasn’t just a bunch of teen slasher flicks. It was also a clever way to exploit nightmares common to all of us. Even in our worst nightmares we know on some level they are just dreams. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, this was no longer true.

And on TV?

I can’t skip over the single worst use of dreams EVER: when the writers of mega-soap Dallas passed a whole season off as a dream. Horrible. Unbelievable.


Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Restless (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer had an episode titled Restless. It’s almost entirely dream sequences. Each of the four main characters, Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy, experiences dreams–surreal dreams–that convey character and information vital for future episodes. It was unorthodox storytelling, and it worked. 

In Doctor Who, the episode Amy’s Choice followed Amy, Rory and the Doctor as they are forced to distinguish between reality and a dream world. They face mortal danger in both realms, and must choose to “die” in the dream in order to awaken in reality.

These all worked because the dream was integral to the story being told.

What about shorter dreams? I’ve used them in my writing, and it’s challenging. In The Last Conquistador, the main character, Randy, is awakened from a dream, and I describe fragments of it:

“It’s too early to be awake, and it’s not the sun bleeding through my curtains that wakes me. It’s the scratching. At first I think it’s the dream, the one where I’m swimming in the clear Caribbean waters when a hand pulls me under, but it’s not. Scratching, slicing, screeching. It’s not a dream. It’s coming from my window.”

The dream for Randy is part of a break from the world as we know it; as the book progresses, he will “slip” between worlds. And, it’s a short, singular image that melds waking and sleep.

In Always Mine, the main character, Danny, is targeted by an evil spirit after using a Ouija board. The entry point for this evil spirit? Dreams. He eats away at Danny through his unconscious mind. Dreams were the gateway.

Writing dreams is a tricky proposition. It usually only works if it’s an integral part of the story.