★★ / ★★★★
Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is deemed fit by his psychiatrist to be released from a mental hospital so his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), comes to pick him up. Over lunch, Kaylie tells Tim that she has found it—the antique mirror that ruined their family eleven years ago—and the time has come for them to fulfill their promise.
Director Mike Flanagan has shaped one of the most effective and creative horror independent pictures in the past five years with “Absentia,” about two sisters and a tunnel with terrible secrets. In a way, “Oculus” follows a similar skeletal framework in that it is about a brother-sister pair and a mysterious, possibly sinister, object. The siblings in both films are separated by time and space. The latter, however, pales in comparison because its premise never moves beyond its structural conceit.
While it is always daring that a horror film is injected with dramatic elements through a parallel storytelling, the present and the past melting through one another like milky memories, much of the tension is sacrificed. A predictable pattern is created. An example is a would-be scary scene involves Kaylie seeing a supernatural figure and the camera quickly cutting to this entity in order to get a reaction from the audience. When the camera returns to the protagonist, we now see her younger self (Annalise Basso) which means we are transported to the past. There is screaming and hullabaloo around the house. About two minutes later, we are transported to the present. This gets exhausting after a while.
The mistake is placing more emphasis on the past. Obviously, the two children, although traumatized, made it through their terrible ordeal. Early in the picture we are told that their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) are dead. Thus, it becomes a matter of simply waiting to see when the parents will die. We are even informed how they will die. With the exception of the strange mirror, there is very little mystery left. Why is the focus not on the present? More importantly, since the mirror is also a character, with the exception of Kaylie going over its owners’ track records throughout four centuries, why are we not provided more information about it?
Although the picture draws some inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” in terms of imagery, the father’s personal work space and how he sits in front of the computer all day, what Flanagan should have taken away from Kubrick’s work is how to establish an increasing sense of impending doom. The 1980 classic, also telling a supernatural story, consists of consistently high-risk and very calculated rising action. This one, however, barely gets off the ground. Because it gets stuck—or is willing to get stuck—in trickeries involving perspectives and memory, the dangers and repercussions rarely come off as tangible. I found it gimmicky and off-putting.
The supernatural figures look uninspired. Are ghosts with lights emanating from their eyes supposed to be scary? It certainly did not work for me. Instead, I thought about how similar images worked better in movies like Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned” and John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned.”
It is clear that the director, who also helmed the screenplay with Jeff Howard, has not found a way to turn his inspirations into his own. What results is a mediocre film with some good ideas but is only decent during the first twenty minutes because a hypothesis is presented. Kaylie’s goal is to gather physical evidence that a supernatural entity is responsible for destroying her family. I would have liked to have seen that movie because it offers a classic template for good old-fashioned scares.