Horror Horror on the Wall: "Oculus" well-made but more silly than scary
105 min., rated R.
"Oculus," the latest in the trend of it's-not-the-house-that's-haunted fright films, was a favorite on the festival circuit, receiving unanimously positive buzz at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and this year's SXSW. Failing to meet those expectations, this is one of those films whose heaping praise misjudges its overall worth, begging the question, "Did we see the same movie?" Expanding his 2006 short to feature length, writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan (2012's "Absentia") does do his material justice with sharply tight editing, elegantly composed cinematography, and an ingenious non-linear structure of past and present stories colliding and simultaneously coming to comparable conclusions. Outside of its technical competence and a cool blueprint, though, "Oculus" pales as a horror film from one fundamental problem: it's never genuinely scary, the intensity factor and number of generated goosebumps never as high as one might have predicted or hoped.
Co-written by director Flanagan and Jeff Howard, "Oculus" hops between its backstory and present-day narrative. In 2002, Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie Russell (Katee Sackhoff) moved their children, 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan), into a suburban house. Everything seemed idyllic before an ornately designed 400-year-old mirror was brought in and hung on the wall of Alan's home office. Soon, Marie noticed the increasingly irrational Alan was spending a lot of time cooped up in his office and Kaylie spotted a lady in Daddy's office. The family dog was locked in the office and disappeared, or did he? Suspecting her husband was having an affair, Marie finally lost grip, while Alan grew even more sinister. Changing their lives forever, son Tim was convicted of killing both of his parents, while Kaylie went into foster care. Eleven years later, 21-year-old brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged from a mental facility and reunited with older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who wants to fulfill a "promise" they made as kids. That promise is to kill "it," the supernatural force still living inside that same antique "Lasser Glass" of which she has regained possession at her fiancée's auction. The skeptical Tim suggests they just smash the mirror once and for all, but as Kaylie reminds him, they tried that before. Instead, she has orchestrated her own experiment inside the old homestead, complete with multiple surveillance cameras, battery-run lights, scheduled time for hydration and snacks, and a timed booby trap. Since so much time has passed, is Kaylie's obsession making her delusional or is the misery-loving mirror still hungry for two more victims?
Modifying the streamlined bump-in-the-night formula, the cleverly complex, potentially confusing time-shifting conceit is slickly rendered by Flanagan's editing. For instance, 23-year-old Kaylie will go up the stairs as 10-year-old Tim is coming down them. Even when the malevolent mirror causes Kaylie and Tim to lose their perception of what is reality and what is a dream or mirage, Flanagan has a little fun manipulating his audience. "Oculus" also plays with the cerebral idea of madness with the siblings being our "unreliable narrators" who have contradictory memories, or "fuzzy traces," of their childhood, but the only thing that the filmmaker really does is deviate from a conventional three-act structure by cluttering it up with a fluid confidence. Once the parallel framework goes into play, the story slowly unfolds and pays everything off in an involving, "what will happen next?" fashion to a lame, albeit admirably grim, finish that relies a bit too much on the antiquated "Chekhov's Gun" rule — or, in this case, "Chekhov's Yacht Anchor." If a yacht anchor is wired as a booby trap in the beginning, chances are it will inevitably strike in the end. What happens should knock the wind out of us, but ultimately, not enough is at stake. Kaylie and Tim either defeat the all-powerful mirror or they don't. The past is in the past.
In the lead role of Kaylie, Karen Gillan (TV's "Doctor Who") is committed and captivating in the way she unblinkingly relays the mirror's malignant history, complete with photos of past victims, like a resourceful survivalist and professor who will stop at nothing until the past is put to rest. As Tim, Brenton Thwaites is a bit flat initially, but considering the character has just been released from a mental ward, he capably conveys childhood trauma. Their younger counterparts, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, are clearly less experienced, but they have a natural sibling bond and convince when asked to look scared and run for their lives from their unhinged parents. Katee Sackhoff is quite sympathetic and affecting as Marie, a cheerful wife and mother who comes undone. The primal place that she's asked to go later, however, is less effective. Finally, as Alan, Rory Cochrane acts indifferently from the start that it never feels like a new switch has been turned on for him to go into Psycho Dad mode.
Maybe this horror buff has become desensitized, but "Oculus" is too formally spooky with echoes of "The Shining," "Mama," and, to a much lesser degree, "The Apparition." Yes, it has its shock moments, one original enough to involve an apple and a light bulb, and the Newton Brothers' pulsing music score occasionally adds dread, but the ongoing sight of ghostly actors with stringy hair and glowing contact lenses is positively hokey rather than fearsome. The thought of a mirror warping perception and playing tricks with reality is creepy and disorienting. As it turns out, that thought is creepier and more disorienting than anything in the film itself. "Oculus" is well-made silliness that offers some fun moments, but it won't leave one feeling rattled or unnerved. It's difficult not to be disappointed; as an alternative, it might make a person want to give another chance to 2008's "Mirrors," an imperfect but more effective chiller about Kiefer Sutherland battling reflections. For those holding out for another elevated genre benchmark, like "Insidious," "The Cabin in the Woods," "Sinister," "The Conjuring" and "You're Next," keep waiting.