It’s been a while since I’ve really fallen in love with a horror movie. If there’s some new Shitty Found Footage Movie of the Week out there I’ll almost certainly be there day one, but I almost always walk out disappointed. It’s hard to say why I’m so drawn to the genre when so few of them bring anything new to the table but I always go just in case one of them does. For a while there, Oculus seemed like it could be the first potential horror franchise in a while to achieve something different, but by the end it falls short.
The film starts off promising. Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just turned 21, now legally allowed to leave the mental health facility he’s been living in for years. He and his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) were separated after a series of horrific incidents led to the death of their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) years before. After moving into a new house, their father purchased an old ornate mirror for his study, and it turned out that the mirror had a nasty streak of killing folks (as old ornate mirrors are wont to do) and it quickly started to influence the lives of the family. Only the children seemed to realize what was happening, but they were not able to intervene, and things inevitably turned tragic.
Nobody believes a little kid who says “it was the mirror,” though, and over the years doctors have helped Tim to convince himself that there weren’t any sort of supernatural shenanigans going down. As present-day Tim leaves the facility, the doctors remind him that Kaylie hasn’t had the same support systems in the outside world, and she might not have found the same kind of peace that he has. Sure enough, as soon as Tim and Kaylie reunite, Kaylie makes it clear that she still believes some sort of supernatural forces played a part in their parents’ death, and she has a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Structurally, the movie is somewhat unique. As Tim decides whether or not to help Kaylie with her quest, we shift between the present and the past and see how previous events unfolded. As our heroes find themselves again in the presence of the mirror, things escalate from “weird” to reality itself shifting beneath their feet.
While the movie does a great job of showing how things get progressively crazier and crazier, there are two major problems that present themselves early on and only get worse as as it progresses. The first is one of logic. “Horror-movie stupid” is a character trait that isn’t at all uncommon in movies like this, but here it’s present from frame one. We’re never given any reason to even halfheartedly believe that Kaylie’s initial plan to defeat the mirror could work, nor do we feel like Kaylie herself has the capacity to actually carry out that plan. Clearly things aren’t going to go as she hopes (being a movie and all) but you still have to at least try to give us the impression that our heroes have a shot at achieving what they’re setting out to do before the shit hits the fan. Even as the problem comes before the meat of the story, it sets up the film on unsure feet.
More troublesome is the movie’s structure itself, which is both the best thing about the movie and what comes damn close to tearing the entire thing down. In the moment, the “what is real?” feeling is extremely well constructed and a joy to watch, but when you pull back to look at the big picture things rapidly fall apart. The second half of the film is best described as flatlining. There are no peaks and valleys, no rising tension. Major events come and go without the slightest hint of importance, to the point where you wonder if the audience is even meant to believe what happened was significant (see also: Sucker Punch).
The ever-shifting landscape of the film stays mostly compelling throughout but the lack of tension or urgency slowly starts to infect the film until it all collapses at the end, possibly one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a theater. I honestly didn’t even realize I was watching the ending sequence until just a few moments before the credits started rolling. The final scenes feel no different than any other scene from the back half of the movie, wholly failing to convey even the slightest sense of building to a climax. It turns out that Oculus is based on a short, which makes a lot of sense in retrospect, as it does feel like a half hour’s worth of story stretched out to triple the length without sufficiently filling in the blanks.
Even though I’ve been mostly negative here, I did actually enjoy most of the movie. Performances are solid throughout, particularly from Gillan’s child counterpart Annalise Basso who absolutely knocks it out of the park. The atmosphere is consistent and creepy, never relying on loud noises for scares and instead letting the audience’s mind fill in dread and expectation, and the editing does an excellent job of clearly tracking “where” characters are as they move through an endlessly shifting reality. It’s actually quite an ambitious movie, and it’s exciting to see this kind of narrative attempted.
While it’s almost entirely undermined by a lackluster script, the rest of the production is top-notch, and everyone involved clearly has some great ideas. I left Oculus deeply frustrated but also kind of excited to see what a sequel would be like. We’ll see if it can maybe muster some of that Paranormal Activity buzz, but the dud ending is probably going to drive the conversation.
three out of five stars