Slick, modestly budgeted indie "Oculus" premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and became a bit of a sensation in horror circles, garnering enough acclaim to win a major distributor and a wide theatrical release from Relativity Media. The buzz, it turns out, has overinflated a film with a riveting structure and not much else going for it. Writer-director Mike Flanagan (2012's "Absentia") and co-writer Jeff Howard have conceived of a solid narrative mystery, but leave nothing a mystery in terms of its broad, predictable ploys for frights. Neglectful common sense on the part of its characters leads to numerous inexplicable actions and missed opportunities for them to beat the malevolent heavy in question. What's even more damaging is the picture's lack of restraint; there are so many corpsy specters with glowing eyes prowling around right from the very first sceneand in full viewthat its tension deflates before it has had time to adequately build. As a byproduct, "Oculus" just isn't scary.
When Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from St. Aidan's Mental Facility on his twenty-first birthday, older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is there to pick him up. Deemed to be fully rehabilitated, Tim hopes to make a fresh start and move on. Kaylie, however, vividly remembers the promise they made eleven years earlier, and the horrors from their childhood that left parents Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and Alan (Rory Cochrane) dead. Now working as an antiques dealer, she has orchestrated a plot to put back in her possession the ornate Lasser Glass mirror she believes has been responsible for 45 deaths over the last four centuries. Tom is skeptical, having convinced himself to buy into the police reports claiming their dad was a murderer, but Kaylie is certain there are supernatural forces surrounding the antique. With cameras set up to capture its doings in the very house they lived in when the cursed object first came into their lives, she hopes to collect evidence of the mirror's evil ways and put a stop to its ruinous reign once and for all.
As "Oculus" plays out, events from the past and present begin to inventively crisscross, the two timelines seemingly running parallel to each otherfrequently within the same frame. In one, 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan) and 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) move into a nice single-family home and have their worlds turned upside down as their mom's mental health deteriorates and their father, believed to be carrying on an affair with a mysterious woman in his office, reveals a potentially sociopathic streak. In the other, a now-grown Tim and Kaylie make themselves ridiculously vulnerable by transporting the wicked mirror back to the scene of the crime so that they can taunt it, then prepare its destruction. They set a timer for every sixty minutes so they don't forget to eat and drinkapparently, they don't dare miss their twenty-four daily snacksand Kaylie instructs fiancé Michael (James Lafferty) to call her by the hour to check on her. Almost immediately, the eerily unexplainable mind games begin. Their missing dog from when they were kids is glimpsed, then disappears. They consciously come to around the house in different locations from where they thought they were. Incoming and outgoing calls may or may not be really occurring. And, in one chilling moment that withers away to nothing when its shows its hand seconds later, Kaylie picks up a lightbulb sitting next to her apple and takes a big bite. At no point do they figure maybe it would be best to throw the mirror in a trash compactor or, at the very least, run in the opposite direction.
Both best known for their small-screen work, Karen Gillan (TV's British sci-fi series "Doctor Who") and Brenton Thwaites (TV's Australian drama "Home and Away") do admirable work as the elder Kaylie and Tim even when their natural smarts and reasonability are halted by a screenplay that insists on dumbing them down. Their youthful counterparts, played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan (2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2
"), are convincing as they are taken to the height of emotional despair. Although there isn't much diversity in what is asked of themthey basically cry and look petrified for the length of the running timeBasso and Ryan still share a sensitive, sometimes touching rapport. Unfortunately, Kaylie and Tim weren't exactly bright when they were younger, either. Faced with physical abuse, a deranged mother tied to a leash in the bedroom, and a dad who is usually either loading his gun or ripping off his fingernails, they never once try to run away. When they finally seek the aid of a neighbor, they do not plead their case but stand silently back as Alan assures the concerned man all is well before sending him on his way. As ill-fated parents Marie and Alan, Katee Sackhoff (2013's "Riddick
") and Rory Cochrane (2012's "Argo
") aren't provided quite enough to do early on to give their turnabouts into raving-mad imposters the impact it should. A brief mention is made by Kaylie of how their mom rarely, if ever, steps foot outside the house, but this statement is never developed or mentioned again.
"Hello again," Kaylie says when she uncovers her newly reacquired mirror, "You must be hungry." The creation of the villainous object and its wrathful genesis are never learned, either by the protagonists or the viewer, signaling that the unknown is often scarier than concrete answers. If only director Mike Flanagan could have abided by this wise truth when it came to the rest of his story's horror elements. The ghosts that wander around the mirror are more lame than worthy of goosebumps, while the portentous visions they witness and the violence inflicted upon them lose their oomph as they routinely turn out to be either dreams or hallucinatory mirages. The desired dread of the situation is on the anemic side, rarely providing a reason for one to move to the edge of his or her seat, while a first-act moment where Kaylie thinks she sees figures draped in white sheets moving in the mirror's reflection is as creepy as things get. Again, it's about the fear of what could be that is more effective than any old actor in contacts and dead-person makeup standing around. "Oculus" eventually reaches a conclusion as stark as it is inevitable, but the would-be sucker punch carries with it regrettably little weight and the nagging feeling that the film has underestimated its audience's intelligence one too many times.