What went wrong with this movie?
Oh, so close. Oculus, the latest film from writer/director Mike Flanagan, comes within a hair’s breadth of being an instant horror classic, but it just can’t quite pull it off.
Oculus relates the story of siblings Kaylie and Tim and their lifelong struggle against the supernatural force that may or may not reside in an antique mirror purchased by their father when they were youths. Placed in their dad’s home office, the mirror begins to exert an unholy influence on the parents, preying on both the father’s exhaustion from having to work day and night and on the mother’s feelings of inadequacy over her aging appearance. Kaylie and Tim quickly begin to suspect the mirror has something to do with the unraveling of their family, but find they are powerless to do much to stop it. Within days the father is driven to murder his now insane wife, and is subsequently shot dead himself by Tim while attempting to kill the children before they can break the mirror.
Years later, the now college-aged Tim is released from a mental institution, firmly convinced by his doctors that everything involving the mirror was just a fantasy concocted by he and his sister to avoid the painful truth that their father was a brutal murderer. Kaylie, however, maintains that the mirror was to blame, and has conceived a plan to get revenge on whatever entity exists within it. Managing to obtain the mirror after years of searching, Kaylie brings it and Tim back to the old family home where she has set up a large number of recording devices and security measures. She has also pieced together a long history of the mirror which she relates to the various cameras, not only bringing Tim (and us) up to speed on her theory of what has happened to their family, but also conveniently closing off potential plot holes. If you were wondering why someone doesn’t just smash the stupid mirror or get up and leave the house once weird things begin to happen, don’t worry, they’ve got all that covered.
With everything in place, Kaylie sets in motion her plan to first gather convincing evidence that something resides inside the mirror, thereby exonerating her family, and then to destroy the damnable thing once and for all. The newly cured Tim wants nothing to do with any of this, of course, and wonders if Kaylie herself might benefit from a bit of therapy.
Now, admittedly, all of this sounds pretty run of the mill up to this point. Haunted mirrors are one of the oldest tropes in horror movies, after all, going back at least as far as the classic 1945 chiller, Dead of Night. But the way the story is told in Oculus keeps it all interesting. You see, almost everything I just related above is actually spelled out in the first fifteen minutes of the film. The rest of the movie intertwines the experiences of the adult Kaylie and Tim in the present with what actually happened the week of their parents’ death, quickly jumping back and forth between the two time periods as Tim’s memories of the events resurface. This method of storytelling could easily get sloppy and confusing, especially once the narrative escalates to the point where the adult characters and their childhood counterpoints begin to cross each other’s paths and interact with one another, but Flanagan manages to hold it all together and the technique ends up adding a level of tension that might not otherwise be there.
It also helps that the actors are uniformly good, keeping you invested in the characters when the crazy stuff starts to happen. As to be expected, most of the pre-release attention paid to the cast of Oculus by genre fans went to most folks’ (not mine) favorite freedom fighter from