In Oculus, Karen Gillian plays Kaylie Russell, the survivor of a horrific home catastrophe leaving both of her parents dead and her brother Tim (played by Brenton Thwaites) locked up in a psychiatric facility. The reports to the police state that Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) was responsible for the murder of his wife Marie (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff) and was consequently shot to death with his own gun by his son Tim as he was about to strangle his daughter Kaylie to death. All implications indict the murderous patriarch, but Kaylie believes that her father was not guilty. Instead, she believes that he was possessed by a malefic spirit that inhabits a mirror that hangs on the wall of her father’s study.
Eleven years after the murders at the Russell household, Tim is deemed fit to return to society and is released from the hospital in which he has spent his time recovering. He is reunited with his sister who, unknown to him, has spent the past decade trying to prove that the murders in their childhood home were the works of the evil mirror. She has gone through great lengths to set up a situation where she can prove that her father is innocent and, with an almost sterile and academic approach to dealing with the mirror, she sets out to do just that. Will she and her brother finally best the demon that has destroyed their family? Will they be strong enough to defeat the evil spirit held within the mirror?
Oculus uses an inventive premise and non-linear storytelling to weave a dizzying narrative that feels very much like the J-horror movies of the early 2000’s. Thankfully bereft of jump-cut horror camera work and computer generated tricks, the look of this movie is very authentic in feel due to its mostly practical effects, even if it does feel a little heavy handed in its corporate product placement throughout. Simultaneously told in present time and in flashback, the two story lines intertwine and interlock to give a full story as well as a good connection to the siblings that are the focus of the movie. Young actors Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (playing the flashback roles of Kylie and Tim) are the best part of the movie. Their performances add a coming-of-age element to the storyline that makes the most terrifying moments of the movie very relatable and ultimately, really creepy and effective.
With all of these good points, however, Oculus fails as a compelling horror movie for a few reasons. First, the movie suffers from pacing issues throughout. The dual storytelling style would be fine, but in trying to put everything together, all of the details seem to come out at the same time. The action both in the flashbacks and in the current time mesh together and almost follow each other in a way that feels more redundant and unnecessary as opposed to exhilarating, to the overall effect of making the movie feel very long. Second, the subtlety that this type of horror depends on to be effective just isn’t there. The story is brutal and horrific, so it makes sense that its telling would be brutal and horrific. This doesn’t work in translation when trying to present the horror in a way that only a calm hand can; it just doesn’t match when you have one part of a story where the father is shooting the mother and choking his kids and then you try to juxtapose that against the incredulity and suspicion of the same kids as their older selves. Finally, although inventive, stories about possessed objects seldom escape the criticism that the characters could easily and simply destroy the thing. Seriously. It’s a mirror, for crying out loud. Mirrors are known for breaking easily. I know that it is important for one to suspend disbelief when trying to enjoy a horror movie, but it’s difficult to consider going face to face with a horrific evil spirit in a match where victory is uncertain when, just as easily, you could best that same evil by throwing a blanket over the mirror and calling it a day. Done and done.
With lackluster performances by its main stars and a difficult to buy into premise, Oculus is a movie best reserved for a night home alone when you have nothing else to watch and you have a thing for mirror horror. Otherwise, viewers should probably avoid staring into this mirror, lest they catch a glimpse of their own disappointed faces.
Oculus opens today in Philly area theaters.