Walking out of the theater, you can’t help but be disappointed with “Oculus.” That isn’t to say Mike Flanagan’s haunted mirror tale is bad, because it isn’t, but there’s a world of unrealized potential left on the screen. Between Flanagan’s last outing, the no-budget “Absentia,” and a cast that includes geek favorites Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who”) and Katee Sackhoff (“Battlestar Galactica”), you have higher hopes than what you get.
The movie begins with Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) getting out of a mental institution where he’s been for eleven years, a good start for any horror movie. His sister Kaylie (Gillan) picks him up and almost immediately attempts to hold him to a promise made when he was ten years old. A haunted mirror possessed their father (Rory Cochrane) and made him kill their mother (Sackhoff), and Tim then shot dear old dad. Kaylie has tracked it down, and plans to kill the hell out of it. That sounds pretty easy, mirrors break all the time, but unfortunately this one is damn near sentient, and can control your mind and defend itself.
“Oculus” presents two parallel timelines. As the present day drama with Tim and Kaylie unfolds, we cut back and forth to their younger days, watching things get more and more out of control with their family. The problem is, the grown up version is way more compelling than the kid version. Before you ever see them as kids, you know going it how it ends, and miss out on any potential tension in that arena.
At first the action is framed in such a way that Tim seems like the sane one, while Kaylie, with her intricate series of traps, alarms, and fail safes, spouting her haunted mirror theory, sounds like a raving lunatic. Tim has a rational explanation for everything they experienced, and for a second you think that maybe she’s the one who is deluded. But the movie makes it obvious what you’re supposed to believe, which one is right, and this option loses any traction before ever getting started. It’s like the movie can’t decide if it wants to be a ghost story or a psychological thriller.
The film tries to create a conflict between the mental versus the supernatural. As Tim and Kaylie do battle with the mirror—which can, admittedly, be hard to take seriously—it takes over their minds, making them see things that aren’t there, hear people who aren’t talking, and wake up in strange places. While this device is used to great effect a couple of times—most notably that scene in all of the trailers where she thinks she’s biting an apple—it is overused and played out. You get the point the film is going for—they can’t even trust their own minds—but after the tenth time, it’s an empty gimmick, a copout that gets the film out of actually telling a story. They get into all of these sticky situations, you wonder how they’ll be resolved, but they aren’t. The script plays this get-out-of-jail-free card and all of a sudden the characters are somewhere else. It’s cheap and frustrating.
Overall, even the atmosphere let me down. Mirrors are creepy. To this day, I can’t get up in the middle of the night to pee without thinking of this one bit from a mystery anthology show I saw when I was kid. There is nothing I remember except one scene, set in a bathroom, where a guy sees a form in a mirror, whips around, and there’s no one there. Then of course, there’s no one in the mirror, but when he turns, boom, shadowy figure that kills him or something, I don’t recall the exact outcome. But it was terrifying then, and it’s terrifying now. For a movie about the ultimate scary mirror, “Oculus” makes shockingly little use of their inherent eeriness. Early on, the film plays a trick similar to the one I just described, and the mirror is filmed from odd angles that enhance the sinister nature, but these strategies fall by the wayside in short order or are overused to the point where they’re no longer effective.
You want to shake Kaylie. For all of her overly elaborate plans and traps for the mirror, she is way more concerned with documenting her actions than actually destroying the damn thing. As the siblings lose more and more control, they miss one opportunity after another to do what they came to do. Whatever power or force or hold the mirror has gets stronger over time, so instead of bashing the thing to hell right away, when it is weak, they wait until they get to a point where they have absolutely no possibility of success.
By the time you get to the end, you know exactly how “Oculus” is going to resolve the situation. You’re left unsatisfied, like a meal that smells delicious when cooking, but winds up tasteless and bland on the table. The finished product isn’t terrible, and while there are some jump scares and creepy scenes, considering the pieces, they never amount to much.