Editor’s note: Our review of Oculus originally ran during this year’s SXSW, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in theaters this weekend.
Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is getting out of the mental hospital because he’s finally been cured. He no longer believes an evil mirror possessed his parents when he was a child leading to his father (Rory Cochrane) murdering his mother (Katee Sackhoff) before being shot down by little Timmy’s own hand. He knows better now and agrees that his dad simply went nuts. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has stated as such all along and went on to grow up, find a career, and fall in love. But when she picks him up Kaylie makes it clear that the two of them can now put the revenge she’s been planning into action. She’s found the mirror, she’s tracked its deadly history across the centuries, and she has a foolproof plan to prove to the world that their parents were victims of this cursed piece of glass.
The only problem with a foolproof plan is that somebody has to play the fool, and in this case it just may be Kaylie.
Oculus is “mirror horror” with a bit of an initial twist in that our characters know all there is to know about this wicked antique before the movie starts. They’re prepped and prepared, and the film’s first act is a setup that includes her plans and a litany of the mirror’s past evil deeds. The remaining two acts see her plans go head to head against the mirror’s power, each one threatening to shatter the other. Unfortunately, that struggle takes a lot of the film’s fun down too.
We’re told early on exactly what happened to the family all those years ago, complete with crime scene photos of the dead parents and the obvious knowledge that the two kids survive. Yet instead of dealing with it via a quick flashback that earlier event is returned to repeatedly and told over the course of the entire film. Knowing the fate of all four characters (in the ‘past’ tale) reduces the suspense and drama noticeably as we already know where each of them are going to end up. The film earns some points twisting the earlier story into the current one, a feat accomplished through some marvelously sharp editing, but by the end it’s getting in the way of the present instead of enhancing it.
Adult Kaylie exits a room and young Kaylie comes out the other side. We’re moving back and forth between then and now, and it’s quite effective at first in its execution. But soon it becomes clear that the editing structure isn’t serving the story, and instead it’s the story being forced to serve the structure. The adults begin following in the steps of their younger selves for no other reason than it looks good from one cut to the next.
Smaller script issues crop up repeatedly as well that collectively increase the annoyance factor while decreasing the tension. Kaylie’s plan is incredibly meticulous, which is to be expected as she’s had well over a decade to work it all out, but it still makes little sense in practice. She quickly learns that the mirror can manipulate the image on the camera, so there will be no evidence gathered, but still she proceeds with a plan seemingly designed to stretch minimal action over the course of hours with nothing to show for it. She’s smart enough to tell Tim “From now on we stick together” after a particularly nasty interaction with a light bulb, but the very next scene… the very next scene… sees them apart again.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan has been around since 2000, but it was 2011’s excellent and creepy Absentia that first earned him raves from horror fans. He’s taken on a bigger, less ethereal subject here, and he unfortunately lets the script get away from him a bit. On the bright side though the film looks fantastic, and his work as editor is award-level in a world where genre films were given a fair shake. He also gets strong performances from most of his cast with Gillan in particular showing a charismatic intensity that powers much of the film.
Oculus is well-acted, looks quite good, and manages some moments of entertainment, but as the minutes tick by it grows weaker and weaker until its final cheat designed to allow for a shocker ending. On the sliding scale of “mirror horror” this one sits somewhere between Mirrors and, well, Mirrors 2.
The Upside: Karen Gillan is a sincere and energetic lead; a couple creepy moments; strong and interesting first act; sharp editing
The Downside: A growing intrusion of stupidity into the script; mirror is all powerful and therefore boring; final event couldn’t happen even in world of the movie; seriously, just smash the goddamn mirror
On the Side: Karen Gillan was seven years old when Empire Records was released.