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SXSW review: 'Oculus'



Sometimes the villain of a horror film is a masked murderer...

Karen Gillan stars in the initially exciting but ultimately disappointing "Oculus"
Intrepid Pictures, WWE Studios, Blumhouse Productions

...other times it's a decades old mirror.

The latter is what causes all of the trouble in SXSW midnighter film and TIFF 2013 "Midnight Madness" audience award runner-up "Oculus."

While the scares are certainly there in "Oculus," as shown in this clip released Wednesday, how the film ever scored as well with audiences as it did in Toronto at TIFF bewilders me.

Grown up into young adults, Kaylie Russell played by Karen Gillan ("Doctor Who") looks to exonerate her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) of their parent's murder by proving the evil mirror in their house was responsible for the deaths.

What follows is a slow burn yet entertaining thriller for the most part. At least until the final 20 minutes.

With a palpable dose of emotion and conviction, Kaylie sets up an elaborate technical arsenal to help prove not only that the mirror is evil but also that her brother specifically was affected by the mirror when he committed the aforementioned murder.

The movie's story is told through a woven series of present time sequences and flashbacks to the traumatic events of the siblings' childhood. At first, this choice feels fresh and helps establish a sense of urgency and excitement in the proceedings of the present. Unfortunately, the flashbacks end up creating a sense of disorganization and chaos which causes the film to lose almost all of the tension built up through the slow moving first act.

However, the film's flaws don't completely erase the benefit of a strong lead performance like the one given by Gillan. Thanks to the same on-screen charisma she provides in her "Doctor Who" performances, "Oculus" still feels like a better-than-average horror film. The better-than average feel of the film is also thanks to Kaylie and Tim feeling like deeper characters than the paper thin characters of so many slasher films in recent years.

Unfortunately, by the time viewers arrive at the predictable and ultimately unfulfilling ending, confusion will reign and the disappointment will compound the exhaustion felt from this type of slow thriller. The quality of Gillan's performance and the promising premise of a subtle killer feels completely wasted and leaves you wishing just a few more tweaks could have made this film something great.

Here's to hoping Gillan gets to showcase her on-screen talent in a higher quality film very soon.

"Oculus" will be released in Austin and nationwide on April 11.

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