Oculus (2014)

Oculus may sound like a substandard metalcore band from the early-2000s but the word actually refers to a style of design that is round, or eye-like, which somehow feeds into the idea of a musty, old haunted mirror. Adapted from a short by director Mike Flanagan (who also helmed the enjoyable Absentia), the premise is perhaps stretched too thin for a feature.

The film utilises a dual narrative to introduce the protagonists – a brother-sister duo, a refreshing change from the usual dynamic – and to flesh out their back-story, thereby eliminating the need for heavy exposition. As the story progresses, the two narratives – one past, one present – gradually inter-splice until they come together completely.

Doctor Who alum Karen Gillan is Kaylie, a twenty-something who, as a child, witnessed the murder of her father by her brother, Tim (likeably nervous Brenton Thwaites). After a decade in a mental institution, Tim is ready to readjust to normal life, but Kaylie reckons they’ve got unfinished business. She thinks the mirror that hung in their father’s office is really to blame while Tim is convinced her grief forces her to remember things incorrectly, in order to cope with the trauma.

Oculus is interesting because it places Tim as the audience-insert, questioning Kaylie’s outlandish views on the supposedly haunted mirror. Much like know-it-all horror fans, Tim has an explanation for everything, and it’s only when he is forced to question his own idea of reality that he begins to listen. Kaylie is an utterly self-assured, strong female lead, and Gillan handles the sometimes difficult role with ease. Indeed, the film is at its most frightening when her perception of reality begins to unravel.

There are two, wonderful gross-out moments, but otherwise this is played straight, as a spooky, old school paranormal flick complete with everything one could ask for – objects moving by themselves, plants dying on cue and light-bulbs that just won’t stay lit. The problematic idea of a haunted mirror is given more weight and depth with a lengthy list of gruesome deaths, supposedly as a result of its malevolent spirit.

There’s a good sense of foreboding throughout, and the varyingly effective jump scares are well-placed. The atmosphere is creepy, and the mirror itself is well-designed. The Newton Brothers’ score is slightly heavy-handed at times, with even the dreaded screeching violins utilised to signal when a shock is coming. This robs the film of some scare potential as horror aficionados will sense the frights are afoot anyway, due to the by-the-numbers narrative, while the multiplex crowd will be on guard thanks to the music cues.

The design of the spirits is irritatingly bad, with glowing eyes making their presence comical instead of frightening. As more are revealed, the sense of foreboding is diminished. If they weren’t glimpsed properly, the threat would be more significant because fear of the unknown is much scarier than the all-too-familiar, Asian-style ghoul – à la Samara, who is still the most obvious character basis. Overall, the visuals are intermittently strong but there isn’t anything particularly fresh or inventive on show here.

Oculus is, at its heart, a character study of a family torn apart by mental illness, driven by a haunted mirror. It’s at its most frightening when the father (Rory Cochrane) is torturing his wife (Battlestar Galactica legend Katee Sackhoff), while the kids stand by, unable to help. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan do well as Kaylie and Tim’s younger counterparts, but they are given an abundance of screen-time, with too long spent discussing, and getting to, the murder instead of actually showing it.

In these moments, the house feels like a prison, claustrophobic and maze-like. When the action moves into the present, all sense of spatial awareness is lost, making it difficult to grasp how big the building is, or even where the rooms are in relation to each other. The great location is wasted as Kaylie and Tim move around blindly, somehow managing to constantly lose each other instead of just staying together as they keep promising. The idea is that they’re losing all sense of reality, but it’s headache-inducing instead of cleverly disconcerting.

Although there’s a great streak of black humour running throughout – with most of the laughs provided by Kaylie – and the atmosphere is tense and creepy, where Oculus ultimately falls apart is in its final act, when the two narratives join together. An arguably open-ended denouement hints at a sequel, where perhaps the premise will redeem itself.

A high-minded concept with a poor execution, Oculus is a lively horror film that falls apart in its final moments, and whose premise is best enjoyed with a complete suspension of disbelief. Best watched in the cinema, or with a group of friends, where the reactions of others will fill in the many, many blanks.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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