A horror movie should never make you question its premise. Either there is a masked killer in the woods, or there isn’t. It shouldn’t pussyfoot around the idea, or worse, constantly cast doubt over what you are seeing. For the first 30 minutes of the new haunted mirror thriller Oculus, the two main characters have a constant battle back and forth over what exactly happened to them 10 years before. Kaylie Russell (Annalise Basso as a child, Karen Gillan as an adult) believes that a possessed antique owned by her father (Rory Cochrane) forced dad to torture and kill her mother (Katee Sackhoff) before meeting a particularly gruesome end himself.
Little brother Tim (Garrett Ryan as a child, Brenton Thwaites as an adult), on the other hand, believes that everything that happened has a logical and realistic explanation. Though he was eventually accused of murdering his dad, a lengthy stay in the loony bin has convinced him that stories about a supernatural household object are just so much BS. While Kaylie counts off the number of similar situations caused by the same suspicious furnishing over the years, Tim argues that such coincidences are just a way of dealing with the gruesome details of their parents’ death. This debate goes on for a good 10 minutes, setting up in the audience’s mind that the now “normal” boy may have a point about his clearly crazed sister.
Even when Oculus “cheats” and “proves” that the mirror is influencing things, that doubt lingers. This leads to a certain level of ineffectualness in what the film is trying to accomplish. Writer Jeff Howard and director Mike Flanagan want us to feel the dark dread, but even that attempted suspense is undermined by an ad campaign that literally gives away every scare beforehand. If the previews sold you on this movie, then you’ve already seen it, more or less. Sure, the mythology spouted by Kaylie is intriguing (some of the other mirror stories she tells are much more interesting than the one here), but it is consistently undermined by Tim’s attempts at rationality, as well as the script’s constant shifts in time.
Yes, this is one of those movies which thinks it’s clever by melding the events of the past with the “experiment” of the present (Kaylie is using some high-tech means to “verify” her version of events, and in return, her brother’s innocence). Characters see themselves at different ages, and information from now is passed backward to the chaos occurring years ago, all meant to disorient the viewer and amplify the terror. But Oculus isn’t scary. It’s an idea of what might be frightening, but it never delivers on its solid potential.
It’s not the fault of the actors, really. Gillan and Thwaites are sufficiently scarred as the older representations of their former selves, and youngsters Basso and Ryan do a terrific job of setting up their manifest contemporary dysfunction. Cochrane and Sackoff are given little to do except play victim, and they do it quite efficiently. No, the real problem here is focus. Oculus didn’t need the fancy narrative tricks to sell its shivers. A movie like The Conjuring (constantly mentioned in the marketing) established its premise and then poured on the fear. Of course, Flanagan is no James Wan, and he proves this over and over again. Scenes which should have impact lack real power. Moments of visual horror are hampered by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it editing approach.
With its occasional jump scares and dark, dour mood, Oculus may make certain genre neophytes cringe. By creating the distinct possibility, however, that some or all of this could be the result of a post-traumatic event psychological break, the ability to get lost in the terror is significantly muted, if not dissipated completely.