For fans of the genre, the unique stylistic approach to haunted house horror will be a novelty of sorts – just don’t be disappointed when it all ends with a fizzle instead of a bang.
In Oculus, two young adults are still trying to move past the horrific and traumatizing death of their parents many years before. For Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), recovery means leaving a psychiatric hospital and reacclimating to life in the real world; for his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), “recovery” means tracking down an old mirror that used to hang in their childhood home – a mirror that Kaylie is convinced houses the evil spirit responsible for the deaths of their parents.
By holding Tim to a promise made in their youth, Kaylie scores herself one night in their old home to test out the theory of the haunted mirror. With decades of research and a house full of ghost traps and recording devices all at her disposal, Kaylie tries to lead Tim through a demonstration of the mirror’s terrible power – while keeping them alive long enough to prove their findings. But daylight is a far away, and the eyes of the mirror see all the way into the deepest recess of the mind – to memories best forgotten.
The latest low-budget horror film pickup by Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Sinister, The Purge), Oculus attempts to stretch the acclaimed 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan into a feature-length scare-fest – with middling success. While the concept and look of the film are unique and crisp (respectively), scrutiny of the overall storyline and larger meaning of the narrative quickly reveal some glaring deficiencies. Short version: like looking through a one-way mirror, there’s something to see here but little to actually reflect upon.
Mike Flanagan (Absentia) directed the short and feature versions of Oculus, with newcomer writer Jeff Howard fleshing out the initial short story by Jeff Seidman and Flanagan. The concept actually approaches haunted house horror in a fresh way, using a two-pronged story (Kaylie and Tim’s experiences with the mirror as both children and adults) to give the film some nice stylistic distinction. The experiences of past and present blend seamlessly together as Kaylie and Tim relive the horrific night of their parents’ deaths; thanks to the nature of the evil entity at the center of the story, the filmmakers are able to bend the rules of reality to create some unique moments of shock and fear. For the most part, this ghost’s mind-games are fun to play.
The narrative of Oculus appears to have substance and meaning, but it is really just smokescreen, an illusion that evaporates as soon as the movie is over. It’s almost as if Flanagan and Howard never really found a way to expand upon the initial short film, as so much of the narrative feels implied or vague rather than fleshed-out and connected. The best horror stories are those which act as dark metaphors for real-life events or experiences, but this film never achieves that resonance. There is also little narrative drive, questionable character motivations, confusing logic to follow – and when it’s all said and done, the long stare into the looking-glass reveals nothing but a hollow center underneath all the elaborate surrealist wrappings. We get an unnerving journey, but the ultimate destination is pretty unimpressive.
The lead roles played by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Rory Cochrane (Argo), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy), Brenton Thwaites (Home and Away) and young actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are all solid enough – even if their respective characters are underdeveloped. There seems to be a half-hearted underpinning about family tensions, infidelity, etc., underscored by a half-formed mirror metaphor – but given the surreal stylistic approach (slipping in and out of time periods, memories and illusions) the mechanics of the story’s execution eclipse much of the subtext and meaning of each scene. The actors seem to be aware of character layers that simply don’t come across in the narrative – worse yet, elements of the characters that are teased initially never get fully developed (Kaylie’s obsession, Tim’s instability, the mom’s jealousy, the father’s aloofness, etc.).
By the end of the film (which fancies itself to be a shocking twist) there is little impact or horror to be felt, beyond the sense of having witnessed creepy or strange events. You won’t exactly go home thinking twice about the mirror in your own home; this ghost story is not that effective, or that memorable. Still, for fans of the genre, the unique stylistic approach to haunted house horror will be a novelty of sorts – just don’t be disappointed when it all ends with a fizzle instead of a bang.
Oculusis now playing in theaters. It is 105 minutes long and is Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.
You can listen to the Screen Rant Editors discuss the film on Episode 139 of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.