Oculus is a sloppy horror movie about a possessed mirror and the vengeance that a grown woman, whose family was destroyed by the mirror when she was a girl, attempts to wreak upon it. There are a couple of shock moments — not shocking, just shock — but for the most part the plot dreamed up by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan (who also directed) is weak, overly murky, and aimless.
It’s also much more of a comedy than a horror movie, if the screening audience was any indication. Boy, you never heard such laughter. True, there are some gasps from time to time, but truth be told, those scenes were predicated on the audience’s not knowing that something might happen when a camera pans slowly around a room or focuses tightly on our heroine’s face.
For the story, it seems that 11 years ago something dreadful happened to the Russell family. Our first encounter is with the grown Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who’s being released from a mental hospital. Tim, we learn, was blamed for whatever happened so long ago and has been institutionalized ever since. He’s met outside the hospital by his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Kaylie wants to help her brother adjust to life on the outside, but first she has a favor to ask, and it involves helping her (or them) overcome their demons once and for all.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, sometimes a little too seamlessly. As things unfold, we’re able to piece together what happened — or at least how Kaylie and Tim remember how things happened. It all has to do with an old, old mirror that their father had purchased for their new home. In the present, Kaylie has gone to the trouble of finding a buyer for it at auction and then offers to fix a crack in the mirror (this makes sense in the movie). Instead, she hauls it to the old family house, where she plans to prove — to herself, to the world — that the mirror is evil and that it’s to blame for the deaths of Tim and Kaylie’s parents.
Kaylie appears unhinged right from the start. Instead of helping Tim to adjust, she focuses all her energy on the mirror instead. She sets up an elaborate system involving the use of multiple cameras, the presentation of historical evidence of the mirror’s effect on (some of) its previous owners, the monitoring of the temperature in the house, the health of the plants in the house, and so on. She also employs several egg timers to indicate when she needs to hydrate and eat, when she needs to change the videotapes, and when she needs to reset the kill switch. The kill switch here is a large descending weight that launches a swinging blade directly at the mirror. Kaylie has put some thought into this, is what I’m getting at.
But the movie spends far too much time with this and trying to persuade the audience that Kaylie’s right, rather than just presenting her evidence and then moving on. Hell, it’s practically a third over by the time anything remotely scary starts to happen. And because there’s so much flitting between time frames (often in the same scene), perception itself becomes more and more muddled, making it tough to discern if what appears to be happening to the characters is actually happening. There were far too many times when I just wasn’t sure if the whole mess was all in Kaylie’s head, and that kind of uncertainty made Oculus hard to enjoy on that or any level.
It would have also been better served if the glacial pace at the beginning moved quickly into creative, fast-paced horror action; instead, there was a lot of talking (mostly between Kaylie and a disbelieving Tim) punctuated by intermittent pieces of propelled plot. On the more positive note, both Gillan and Thwaites are good, as is Rory Cochrane as their father, Alan.
The denouement, however, kind of fizzles. It’s the kind that’s supposed to come out of nowhere and startle you something fierce, but all I felt was sweet relief that the end was nigh. The ending just feels like a cheat, or maybe something akin to a cheap toupee slapped over a shaved weasel with digestive problems. And although that may not be a particularly coherent analogy, it still seems quite appropriate for Oculus.