Oculus (2014)

Director: Mike Flanagan

Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff

Here’s an experiment: Try staring into a mirror for a couple of hours and see if you find anything beyond your own reversed image. You won’t, but don’t let that stop you. There is no deeper meaning to be found, no revelation to be had here. A mirror is a reflective pane of glass and nothing more. Likewise, the “haunted house” movie is more often than not a one-dimensional bag of tricks which you can choreograph from its beginning to its end. I’m supposed to buy into all the cheap scares, ignore the paper thin plot, and not turn my nose up at the inevitable conclusion. “Oculus” cannot be faulted for trying to be more than the sum of its parts, but it can’t very well do that when it uses all the same plot devices.

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a psychiatric hospital after it is determined he is not a danger to himself or anyone else. In the time he has spent there, he has come to terms with what his doctors explain to him were delusions about there being supernatural forces behind the deaths of his parents. His father killed his mother, and he in turn had killed his father. It was supposed to have been as simple as that. Tim’s doctor suggests that he should reconnect with his older sister, but really that’s the last thing he should be doing. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent the last eleven years both shrugging off those who would ridicule her for what became of her family, as well as researching the history of the mirror she is determined to prove was the cause of it all. Naturally, she expects Tim to be on board with her in this endeavor.

Not only has Kaylie gained temporary access to the Lasser Glass, but she has moved it to the house where she and Tim once lived with their mother and father. She has also set up cameras and other recording devices around it to document the occasion, and a “kill switch” in the form of an anchor weighted to the ceiling which can either be released manually or automatically by way of a programmed timer. Kaylie fully intends to use this device to “kill” the mirror, but not until she’s certain that she’s gathered enough information to prove the mirror’s true nature and clear her family name. Tim doesn’t understand why they don’t just smash it now, and she tries to explain that it won’t let them, which Tim won’t believe even after he attempts to do the deed but for some reason stands down his attack. He even interrupts an experiment Kaylie was running which involved a caged dog. It isn’t until they leave the room to argue that he finally believes. When they come back in, they find the cameras have all been moved. Playback shows that they never left the room, and were in fact responsible for moving the cameras themselves. Things continue deteriorating from there, reality becomes harder to distinguish from false images, and Kaylie’s flaw in her plan becomes clear. It is smart that she’s not attempting this alone, because anyone before her who had died rather quickly. But she’s also overconfident, thinking she has covered all of her bases, and the mirror knows that.

Intercut with the scenes from 2013 are flashbacks to 2002, when Kaylie and Tim lived in the house with their parents: Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff). In true “Amityville Horror” fashion, the parents slowly become unhinged. Marie falls victim first, with the mirror making her believe that her husband is having an affair. Alan is made to chain her up in her room and sit around the house doing nothing, not even grocery shopping. It’s on his list of things to do, he says. It’s when Kaylie unlocks the bedroom door to investigate that things go haywire. Both of her parents take turns trying to kill her. Alan ends up shooting Marie dead just as the latter seems to be snapping out of it, after which he turns his attention to Kaylie. Coming to his sister’s defense, Tim wrestles his father’s gun away and, with Alan’s help, shoots his father dead, the body impacting with the Lasser Glass. This last act is what gave the mirror its one and only crack. Unfortunately, Tim is unable to convince anyone of what really happened, and that’s how he got sent away to the mental hospital.

The WWE Studios logo is to film what the LJN logo is to video games. It is generally a sign of an inferior product. Most of the movies under the WWE Studios banner are hack jobs featuring pro wrestlers/”sports entertainers” who were misled into thinking they can act. “Oculus” is one of the few without any wrestlers in the cast, but its actors still struggle with a plot which is always one wrong step away from collapsing in on itself. Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”) is a rising star, but even she can only do so much with a movie that forecasts everything that’s going to happen about halfway through. It’s been said before that if you introduce a gun in the first act, there’s a strong chance it’s going to be fired in the final one. Gillan certainly makes the most of her starring role. I don’t know of any other actress who has the ability to talk as rapidly as she can and still sound completely coherent.

My main problem with “Oculus,” which is also my biggest gripe with haunted house stories in general, is the trap the movie sets for itself once its revealed that the mirror can trick people into seeing whatever it wants them to see. How am I supposed to trust anything the movie is showing me from then on? Additionally, I question Kaylie’s judgment. Certainly, she’s done her homework on the history of the mirror and come up with clever precautions… but how smart is it to stand in the same room as the mirror while she’s telling her brother everything she intends to do to bring about its demise? If the mirror truly is both sentient and evil, why give it all the information it needs to foil your plan before you’ve even started? The flashbacks are largely unnecessary, and seem to exist only to set up a parallel with what’s going on now, one which figures in the movie’s climax. They also pad the running time, so there’s that too. It’s too bad, because despite the WWE Studios label and the involvement of the producer of “Insidious”… and the fact that I hated “Absentia,” another horror film written & directed by Mike Flanagan… I nevertheless came in hoping to love this movie. It’s definitely better than most of its kind, but it’s still just a BOO! haunted house story. Nothing more, nothing less.

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