Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard (screenplay), Mike Flanagan & Jeff Seidman (short screenplay)
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, and Katee Sackhoff
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You see what it wants you to see.
When the book is written about this current era of horror, itís going to be littered with supernatural movies because ghosts have been haunting the hell out of multiplexes and television screens here lately. Writer/director Mike Flanagan has thrown his hat into this ring before, and Absentia especially made it clear that he isnít just interested in crafting a typical bump-in-the-night, haunted house thrill ride. Instead, he seems more concerned with capturing and hovering on the tangible effects these hauntings have on their victims. With Oculus, heís up to more of the same, as he takes a silly premise (a spooky mirror) and initially approaches it as a character study before he loses his grip and succumbs to the mechanical nature of this genre.
After spending a decade in institutional care, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released back into the world, where his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is eager to collect him and help him to adjust. It turns out that she also has ulterior motives, though, as she expects Tim to make good on a childhood pact to confront the horrors that landed him in custody in the first place. Doing so entails literally returning to the scene of a crime, as their childhood home was the site of their motherís (Katee Sackhoff) brutal murder at the hands of their father (Rory Cochrane). Kaylie, however, has never been convinced that her dad was truly responsible and instead blames a particularly sinister mirror in his office.
Upon reacquiring the mirror, Kaylie begins to document its sordid history and attempts to capture evidence of its supernatural activity on camera. In an intriguing role reversal, Tim argues for any number of rational, sane explanations, especially after witnessing Kaylieís elaborate scheme. Itís pretty clear that she may be nuts. Of course, if thereís one thing Iíve learned from horror movies, itís that characters usually arenít crazy when everyone accuses them of being so; furthermore, everyone pays a price for not heeding their warnings in the first place. Oculus adheres to the tradition, which wouldnít be as unfortunate if it didnít give up the ghost about thirty minutes in.
Up until that point, itís fascinating to watch these two siblings confront and process their grief, memories, and imagination. Oculus frequently flashes back to their childhood and reveals the malleability of memoryóit turns out that some bizarre childhood episodes could possibly be reasoned away more logically than Kaylie ever anticipated. All of the filmís momentum hinges on this central ambiguityóis Kaylie right about the haunted mirror, or is she simply compensating and refusing to accept that her father was actually a maniac? Itís not a spoiler to reveal that the film goes with the former, as, again, it arrives at this conclusion rather early and deflates much of its intrigue as a result.
When Oculus commits to the haunted mirror angle, it trades in ambiguity for vagueness and settles for a well-orchestrated but hollow collection of scares. Structurally, it attempts to share much of its DNA with fellow Blumhouse productions: thereís a requisite slow build with subtle, creepy imagery peppered in before it ramps up to a more frenzied conclusion. Flanagan adheres to part of this blueprint but becomes increasingly shaky once he loses focus on the charactersí attempts to cope and simply decides to subject them (and audiences) to an endless series of mind-fucks. Calling this mirror omnipotent might be selling it short--its powers are so ill-defined that one might as well assume that it can do anything to achieve its goals: possession, reality-warping, etc. It makes for a rather tedious, dull climax thatís been stripped of all its drama, even as itís frenetically crisscrossing between past and present and reveling in horrific imagery throughout.
Oculus is a feature-length version of Flanaganís own 30-minute short, and it often shows, especially once it hits a wall around the halfway point. Eventually, even the filmís unique structure feels superfluous, as the flashback material only serves as padding to fill in the blanks and provide visual confirmation of events that are discussed. Thereís an interesting motif of recurrence and circularity to the climax that serves the filmís overarching theme (these characters are haunted by their past as much as they are literally haunted), but itís just a little too repetitive and obvious to register with any impact. By the end, the proceedings are so rote that the final shock even falls flat, which is too bad since Flanagan seems so invested in these characters early on.
Ultimately, though, the demands of this genre win out, and surveying the carnage becomes paramount. Thatís not an altogether bad thing since Flanagan is an exceptional horror craftsman who can wring suspense and indulge in visceral violence when necessary (I cringed at a few pointsóOculus almost becomes a gross-out movie at times). Between this and the dreary, suffocating atmosphere (seriouslyóthis thing is foreboding from frame one and rarely relents), Oculus looks the part of a slick horror movie and is populated by solid performances (Cochrane is especially memorable as the dead-eyed and soon deranged patriarch)óitís just that it loses its pulse and never recovers from Flanaganís decision to abandon uncertainty for sheer obfuscation. Oculus postures as a cerebral riff on a familiar theme, but its mind-fucking only amounts to empty sex. Rent it!
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