Oculus is based on a short film by the same director (Mike Flanagan), Oculus: The Man with a Plan. After the director’s previous feature film, Absentia, expectations were pretty high for this one and this does emerge as a fairly strong haunted house movie. It stands apart from others in many respects, not least for answering the question “suppose you survived a haunting; what happens next?” Unfortunately, a lot of good will is lost early on by a film too concerned with delivering scares at the end and not properly resolving the ideas that made it stand out in the earlier acts.
Eleven years ago, young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) went through a terrible ordeal. Their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) bought an antique mirror and afterwards a horrific series of events tore the family apart. Now older, Tim (played now by Brenton Thwaites) has been released from psychiatric care, having come to terms that many of the things he remembers from that night weren’t real, they were only delusions, and he’s ready to get on with his life. Only Kaylie (Karen Gillan) informs him that that’s not the case. She says that something otherworldly was behind what happened that night and she intends to prove it, along with the rest of the mirror’s bloody history, once and for all, with his help… whether he wants to or not.
The film is in effect two stories in one; the younger Kaylie and Tim’s first encounter with the mirror and Kaylie’s attempt to prove that what happened was the fault of the haunted ‘Lasser Glass’. The transitions between the two as they play out concurrently are handled very well, not least for the fact it’s fairly clear most of the time when each scene is happening. In fact, the links between the two are one of the films biggest themes; different ways of dealing with one’s past and the way history can repeat itself are key to the plot and characterisation.
There’s also a solid ‘science vs. the supernatural’ plotline in the current day story. Not just in terms of the highly elaborate precautions that Kaylie has taken in trying to deal with the Lasser Glass but also in terms of Tim and Kaylie’s reactions to the horrific events – Tim rationalising it all away, while Kaylie’s been obsessed with it. In the end, while one turns out to be factually correct, the other may have had the better idea in how to deal with it.
All this would be meaningless if the film didn’t work so well in terms of scares. The haunting scenes are extremely effective, mainly because rather than focusing on whatever the force within the mirror is, it’s more on how these things affect the characters. In the past scenes, we see the elder Russell’s having two very different descents into madness as a result of their exposure. In the present, we see a whole slew of mind games that the mirror plays to try and deal with what Kaylie thinks is an airtight plan to reveal the mirror. Also, just as the mirror uses the children’s prior knowledge against them, so Oculus does with the audience. There are several moments where it knows that its audience has seen horror films before and builds tension around our expectations, sometimes subverting them. It’s also good to see one that doesn’t have every single jump punctuated by a loud noise, instead several times having silence or just the right choice of subtle sound effect.
As good as all this is, the film does have a couple of problems and unfortunately they are pretty big ones. Firstly, the film reveals too early how the story with Kaylie and Tim’s parents ends, so some of these scenes aren’t as tense as they could be, as we already know where it’s going to end up – with the kids making it to grown ups to allow them to be in the modern day segments. You think the film is going to wrong-foot you at this point in some big way, but there aren’t many new revelations made, there are no major surprises. The other problem is that the fascinating character details. with the clash of views between Kaylie and Tim, gets forgotten. By the final act, it’s all a lot of running around and shocks, with the film’s more fascinating ideas completely left by the wayside and under-explored. One wishes for a version of this film that does more with the implications made earlier, raising the question of whether they really remembered the events the way they really happened. As a result, it ends with one big shock, followed by kind of a whimper.
Oculus is still a very effective chiller, not least for how smartly it sets up its scares and atmosphere, with a nebulous, truly malevolent threat at the heart. It’s well acted, has strong characters and the director knows how to wring the tension out of a scene. The main problem is that you wish for more attention to have been paid on its more unique sections. Also while the merging of the different plot-threads leads to some fascinating moments, you just end up sitting waiting for a twist that never comes. It’s still well worth seeing, but it’s a few crucial missteps from being something truly special, leaving you wishing for more.