In Oculus, the new creepy horror from writer/director Mike Flanagan, something happened ten years ago to the fairly ordinary Russell family after they moved in to their new house, but we can’t quite tell what. All we know is that it had something to do with that large, antique mirror just positioned on the wall in dad’s office. Like pieces of a jigsaw that never quite form a picture, we have a fair idea of what might have happened, but it takes a while to put everything together. Oculus burns slowly.
“You promised me you’d never forget what really happened,” Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) says to her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), moments after he’s released from an institution. “I was ten years old,” protests Tim.
Things get even creepier when Kaylie buys that same, antique mirror at an auction. It appears she’s been hunting it down, convinced that the murders of her parents ten years earlier had nothing to do with her brother – that’s the reason, we find out, he’s been in a mental facility – but everything to do with that creepy mirror.
“Hello again,” she says to the mirror after taking it home and putting it back on the wall in the same position where it used to hang. “You must be hungry.”
What follows is a straight forward tale of evil influences presented in a complicated way. There are flashbacks that we’re never quite sure are flashbacks until we realize that the playful children having fun in their new home are really Tim and Kaylie as they were ten years ago. It takes time to get used to the uneven rhythm of the film.
As things progress and the story takes shape, we learn that the mirror has actually been around since the eighteenth century. Kaylie is convinced that over the years, the antique has been responsible for at least forty-five deaths, including mom and dad, and she’s determined to find out how and why. “Supernatural forces reside in the mirror,” she claims, but her brother isn’t buying it, and for awhile the film presents an element of doubt as to whether it’s all in Kaylie’s mind or if the mirror really is evil.
The way the film becomes complicated is how it presents the two time differences – the events of ten years ago and what’s happening today. What was a flashback then becomes a parallel story; then the two time differences seem to overlap where characters from yesterday are looking directly at events of today, and that’s where it starts to lose you. It seems clever at first, then it feels a little too clever. Director Flanagan already had a good thing going; it’s a disappointment he overreached.
Oculus makes you feel uneasy throughout, and in this respect, it works; there are good chills and genuinely spooky images, though it demands patience. Plus, the performances from all are particularly good. Scottish actor Karen Gillan, better known as Amy from TV’s Dr. Who, makes an impressive debut in her first big American film and pulls off a decent American accent in the process. But the film eventually falls prey to many horror/chillers of its kind and ultimately feels like a cheat. The story behind the history of the mirror is never fully explored when you want to know more – it’s a lot easier to create scares when you don’t have to explain why or how things are happening – and the climax, where history repeats itself and presumably will continue to do so, is a let down considering how far you’ve come to get to that point. It leaves you dissatisfied, perhaps even annoyed. You’ll always find an exception, but in general, horror films –even potentially good ones like this – never quite know how to end.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)