“Oculus” *1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, and Garret Ryan
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard (screenplay), based on a short screenplay by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Seidman
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
“You see what you want to see”– tagline for “Oculus”
If the above tagline made any sense to you, more power to you. Mirrors have the capacity to bring forth a myriad of emotions from those gazing upon them. From a single view, we can generate everything in our minds from self-doubt, vanity, horror, and even wonder. That being the case, I’m surprised it took this long for the horror genre attempt something preposterous about a mirror, as it seems ripe for the picking. Go figure, “Oculus” exists, if for no better reason than to give young people something to do on a weekend. It doesn’t have much to say, and when it does, it is vague and non-sensical. Despite a fine visual sensibility and a smattering of palpable tension, “Oculus” just doesn’t yield anything revelatory, and at times is simply maddening.
‘Doctor Who’ alum Karen Gillan stars as the adult version of Kaylie, and her character is introduced looking rather smugly at a mirror she appears to have located at an auction house. We’ll ignore the fact that her employment at said auction house is a convenient way for the script to explain her acquisition, as well as provide her an understanding husband (Ryan) who just happens to run the place. This mirror, with gothic arches, serpentine decor, and an obvious ‘Evil-Rubbed Bronze’ stain, is an ominous-looking artifact. The sinister nature of the its’ appearance is a dead giveaway that it has an ulterior motive other than, say, hanging on a wall.
Keeping in mind the motives of inanimate objects, let’s examine the capacity of a mirror to be creepy, and perhaps we can discern whether or not this movie’s premise itself is “ridoculus” (see what I did there?). When I was younger, I saw mirrors three ways: 1) a reflective surface that was literally a framing device to develop my self-image, 2) a playground for my imagination, as I envisioned a ‘world’ behind the mirror, and 3) a horrific homeland for monsters and demons, particularly due to the “Bloody Mary” myth perpetuated by older friends and relatives. Does “Oculus” feel like exploring any of that territory?
Of course not, for the mirror in this film has some kind of supernatural power. Those that gaze upon it are ‘influenced’ (not quite possessed) to carry out horrific deeds for the mirror. Here’s the odd part- the mirror can apparently materialize into a physical presence as well, that humans can interact with, and the kids in this film actually see. It leads to an obvious question- why in the world would a supernatural presence have another body take care of what it could do all by itself? It’s a good example of why this film doesn’t work, for the script provides no motivation or origin for the mirror’s nefarious behavior, or scientific reason for it’s existence; therefore there are no rules, simply tired devices to advance the plot. In the likely sequels to follow, the writers will be forced to concoct an explanation out of the illogical mess they’ve created.
Back to the “story”- Kaylie is determined to get back at this inanimate object, so much so that she involves her brother Tim (Thwaites). I have a problem with this: the film shows these two siblings directly involved in the grisly death of their parents, then only reveals that one (Tim) has been hospitalized. Then, upon Tim’s release eleven years later, Kaylie immediately involves him in her plan to return to their old home and destroy this mirror that was apparently responsible for their parent’s fates. The movie could stop right here, as a healthy Tim would reject his sister’s plot for revenge if he was, in fact, healthy. It also bears mentioning that Kaylie, as disturbed as she might also be, doesn’t seem to consider her brother’s well-being at all. In one step, the film shows us a pair of very close siblings that experienced something terrible, then in the next breath she’s dragging him back into the fray and ostensibly risking both of their lives. These siblings aren’t as in tune as the movie might suggest- at one point while ‘documenting’ the mirror’s evils, they specifically tell each other to stay together the rest of the time they are in their old house. The very next scene? They split up.
This is a good looking movie, capably made and all. There are even a couple of reasonably tense moments, and the score is a fine companion piece. As an entire film, however, it just doesn’t work. I wonder if the filmmakers originally started with a story about perception, and the way we view ourselves, or (this is a stretch) perhaps a larger parable about children and the collateral damage of divorce, but ended up with a cheap horror movie. The latter is the more likely of the two. “Oculus” makes up rules to advance the story, gives us characters that make odd decisions, and even the film’s centerpiece (a killer mirror, oh my!) is given no logical origin or purpose for existence. Even the plot device that seems logical is goofed- the story spends time setting up cameras, computers, and routines to prove the existence of spiritual wrongdoing, but oddly enough, within its’ own framework cannot prove it. It’s the blind leading the blind. I found myself disliking the film exceedingly more as I took the time to organize my thoughts for this review. Perhaps that’s a disservice to the project, and maybe my more immediate reactions would have produced a more favorable result and a fairer assessment. Perhaps it’s just a bad film, masquerading as a serious psychological thriller.