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
Battlestar Galactica, Katee Sackhoff, and most people’s (not mine) favorite companion from the new Doctor Who series, Karen Gillan, and they both do quite well with their roles here. They’re joined by 24’s Rory Cochrane and Australian television star Brenton Thwaites (whom the studios must desperately want to be the next big thing as he has five more movies coming out this year), both of whom are fine, though to be honest, Thwaites isn’t given much to do beyond standing around looking confused. Surprisingly, though, it’s the two kids who play the young Kaylie and Tim, Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan, who pretty much steal the show and hold everything together. They’re almost enough to make you take back everything bad you ever said about child actors (almost).
And it’s a good thing the actors and story are actually involving, because for a horror movie, Oculus is a bit lite on the fright. That’s not to say there aren’t a few requisite jump scares here and there, but Oculus definitely eschews the “leap out of your seat and scream every five minutes” technique of movies like The Conjuring or Insidious. Rather, it concentrates instead on an ever-growing sense of uneasiness and despair, as Tim struggles with the question of whether Kaylie was right all along about the mirror or if he’s simply losing his grip on his new found sanity and beginning to slide back into fantasy.
Unfortunately, that lack of amusement park style horror might be one of the things to hold Oculus back from being the next big horror movie. Plus, it has to be admitted that the mirror thing has been done to death. I mean, come on, it’s only been a few years since we had a horror movie actually named Mirrors for crying out loud. It’s a shame they couldn’t have found something else for the alleged spirit to haunt. But for my personal taste, the main fault with the movie is that the ending is a little too pat. The story takes great pains to set up the possibility that the evil within the house could either be coming from something inside the mirror or from inside the hearts and minds of the people who live there. As someone who comes from a faith tradition that recognizes we should always be on the lookout for signs of evil from within as well as from without, I enjoy it when a movie does the same. Sadly, rather than leave it ambiguous, which I think would make for a creepier, more thought provoking ending, the movie pretty much chooses a side, and it’s a little bit weaker for it.
Still, that’s just my personal preference, you might like the ending just the way it is. And either way, it has to be said that simply being a good horror movie these days is something of an achievement in and of itself. The people behind Oculus have managed to craft an intelligent thriller that’s fairly involving (at least once it picks up speed) and that’s dependent on actual chills rather than just on things that go boo. Oculus tries its best to be one of those films that burrows into your subconscious and hangs around there for a few days giving you nightmares. It almost succeeds.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Mov