So here’s the thing about Oculus — like the haunted mirror that serves as the film’s centerpiece, it’s all just a reflection. But it’s a rather appealing one.
Specifically, it’s a reflection of pretty much everything else going on in horror at the moment, combining elements of the “found footage” subgenre with those of the “haunted objects” subgenre, shaking ’em all up a bit, and coming out the other end with something that’s hardly new, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least well-executed.
The project started life back in 2006 as a short film by director Mike Flanagan, and after the generally positive reviews given his full-length feature Absentia, a veritable smorgasbord of financiers (including the WWE wrestling juggernaut) came together and threw roughly five million bucks at him to go back to his earlier work and flesh it out (along with co-screenwriter Jeff Howard) into a full-length movie. The finished product does, in fact, feel a bit padded in spots, as you’d probably expect, but no moreso than anything else coming out of Hollywood these days, and while there’s (again) admittedly not much here by way of originality, some reasonably strong performances, a nifty if derivative core concept, and a heaping helping stylish atmospherics save Oculus from becoming “just another” horror flick.
Here’s the deal : 11 years ago, a wealthy software designer named Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) bought a haunted antique mirror, became seduced by the strange secrets it whispered to him (not to mention the evil woman who occasionally stepped out of it), and ended up killing his wife, Marie (Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff) and traumatizing the shit out of his kids, Kaylie (played as an adult by Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan and as a youngster by AnnaliseBasso) and Tim (full-grown version portrayed by Brenton Thwaites, youthful counterpart by Garrett Ryan) before Tim put a stop to it by pumping the old man full of buckshot. Here at TFG we like it when bad things happen to rich people, so hey — so far, so good.
The experience had remarkably different effects on the two siblings : Tim ended up confined to a mental institution, where years of “therapy” managed to convince him that the whole incident played out in a remarkably different way that he remembered it, while Kaylie went to work hatching a long-term plan to clear her family name by obtaining work at a prestigious auction house (and getting engaged to the owner’s kid), tracking the mirror (which had since fallen out of her family’s possession) down, researching its lurid history (pretty much everyone who ever owned it since it was first made had tragedy befall them), maneuvering to have it re-installed in her family’s former home between owners, and, the very night her brother is released back into the world. setting it back up with a video camera aimed right at it to document its “actions” before, if all goes to plan, ultimately destroying it with a complex swinging-axe contraption of her own design. Obsession or initiative? I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.
Needless to say, everything doesn’t go according to plan — not even close — and as our narrative unfolds over two separate timelines, we see the the mirror in both slow-burn action as it rips the family apart 11 years ago, and working considerably quicker in the present day, as it only has one evening to save its — errmmmm — life. Genre stars Gillan and Sackhoff both prove they’re ready for the big time with their performances (even if Gillan struggles at times to mask her Scottish accent), but it’s really Thwaites who operates as the audience’s central point of identification here, being called upon to both relive a past he’s done his damndest do forget/obfuscate and to save the day in the present.It’s a damn solid turn on his part, and one hopes we’ll see more of him the not-too-distant future.
Flanagan, for his part, transitions between the two time frames smoothly throughout, and manages to keep both storylines intriguing, which is no mean feat given that we already know how events in the past shake out, and he uses his (generally speaking) one location to solid, claustrophobic effect. Throw in some well-executed CGI work and “modern gothic”-type atmospherics and you’re all set for a fun and agreeably bumpy little ride that manages to make even something as innocuous as dead house plants seem laced with foreboding and dread.
On the minus side of the ledger, when the film goes full-bore into “mind-fuck” territory towards the end, as the mirror (which, by the way, sure looks cool, doesn’t it?) begins altering our protagonists’ perceptions of reality, things get a little jumbled and the overall effect falls more than a bit flat, and you’ll probably see the ending coming from a mile off, but screw it — at least the ride from points A to B is an interesting one, even if we finish things at more or less the exact spot we’d expect to.
Which, in fairness, still makes Oculus a modest accomplishment in my book. Maybe my standards are just really fucking low at this juncture — to the point where I don’t even expect, much less demand , anything terribly fresh from Hollywood horror and am willing to settle for the same old thing as long as it’s done with some style — but if we’re going to have another supernatural-themed “franchise” thrust upon us (and we are, trust me — this thing screams “sequel”) at least all indications are that this won’t be a shitty one.
It may not be much, sure, , but I’ll take it.