The new horror movie Oculus has a lot going for it. There's a neat concept: a cursed mirror destroyed a family years ago, and the kids want revenge. There are strong performances by genre stalwarts Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff, and arresting visuals. Unfortunately, as with any trick mirror, much of this depth is illusory.
In Oculus, based on a short film of the same name, an antique mirror has terrible powers. It screws with your perceptions, until you don't know what's real and what's illusion. It drives people insane and makes them hurt themselves and loved ones. It sucks the life force out of people as well as pets and houseplants. It causes lights to flicker and fail. In general, it feeds off your life energy and destroys you.
Eight years ago, the Russell family bought the mirror when they moved into a fancy new house, and it ended badly — the father, Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane), tormented and eventually killed his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff). And then their son Tim was forced to shoot the dad in self defense.
Now, Tim is finally being released from the mental institution where he's been stuck since shooting his father. And he's finally resolved in his own mind that all the crazy stuff he saw back then was just a psychotic break, and there was no magic mirror — until his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) comes to take him home, and tells him she's found the mirror. She wants his help to keep the promise they made as kids, to destroy the mirror once and for all.
Kaylie's set up what appears to be a foolproof system for dealing with a cursed object, including tons of backups and failsafes — and meanwhile, as she and Tim confront the terror of their youth, we see tons of flashbacks showing exactly what went wrong when they were kids, until the horrific past and present start blending together because the mirror is screwing with their perceptions.
Obviously, a premise like this depends on intense visuals to work, and director Mike Flanagan is more than up to the task. In Flanagan's hands, an antique statue becomes the creepiest thing in the world, full of deep crevices and strange furrows. Ordinary household objects start to look sinister and alarming, and sound cues (like the alarms that Kaylie sets up to go off at regular intervals) become more sinister as they get more muffled.
At its absolute best, this film will give you Doctor Who flashbacks, because Karen Gillan has several moments where she's questioning whether a statue has moved, or where she's trying to keep her eyes on something so she can trust her memory. It's a very Steven Moffat concept — nobody ever says the words "perception filter," but they might as well — and Gillan's just as spooked by things in the corner of her eye as she was by Prisoner Zero, way back when.
And the performances, in general, are quite strong — Gillan crackles with a nervous energy as she prepares to confront the evil mirror, although her attempt at an American accent sounds kind of odd. Sackhoff and Cochrane are perfect as a couple who are slowly descending from marital happiness to mutual loathing and distrust, and finally into violent hatred. Thwaites has probably the toughest role, as a former mental patient who's desperately trying to cling to reality, and he projects a brave fragility.
And there's tons of great ideas in the film — the notion of a monstrous object whose power is to wreck your perception of reality is a really cool one, and opens up lots of horrible skin-crawling moments like the "biting a lightbulb instead of an apple" thing that's in all the trailers. The way the past and future keep colliding and crossing over as the flashbacks bleed into the present is also used for some great skin-crawling moments — and is a good metaphor for the way that trauma sticks with you and keeps you trapped in the past.
But the best notion in the film is probably the way it captures the experience of siblings surviving childhood abuse and terror together. After Kaylie and Tim's parents lose their shit, the two kids have nobody but each other, and they form a super-intense bond in which they basically create their own shared reality in order to survive. As adults, they still have that bond, but it's not entirely healthy because Kaylie can't move on and their shared reality is no longer a safe space.
So there's plenty of great drama, and cool moments, in this film. There's just a couple of major problems:
1) It suffers from the ailment that afflicts a lot of short movies expanded to feature length. There's just not enough story to sustain itself over 105 minutes, and the movie drags really badly, especially in the second half when we already see where this is going. The flashbacks, in particular, run way longer than they need to because we know at the start of the movie how they turned out and they're just needlessly horrible. This movie could have been tightened a lot, without losing anything. There's a reason a lot of horror movies are just 80 minutes long.
2) In the end, there's just not a lot of there there. The mirror is a neat idea, the family is a great character study, but it's not enough. This film feels as though it runs up against the constraints of horror movies, where nothing can ever really be explained or fully confronted, lest the spell be broken. It's the difference between a fantasy movie and a supernatural horror movie (which might be a topic for a longer piece.) In a typical fantasy movie, the magical item is at least explored and treated as a character or major actor in the story — you may not fully understand it or control it, but at least it's possible to know it in some way. But in a supernatural horror story, the terrible force must remain inscrutable to keep its chilling power. In the end, Oculus felt like less than the sum of its parts, because it was just a pedestrian horror movie. The best horror films feel revelatory or transcendent at the end (see The Conjuring or The Last Exorcism) but this one just felt a bit basic.
So all in all, every Doctor Who fan will eventually have to rent this one and imagine how it could be a lost Amy Pond adventure. Possibly there will be fanvids, of Karen Gillan looking at more creepy statues to see if they've moved. And this film is well worth renting and watching late at night, because the creepy imagery and emotional performances pack a really great punch. Just don't see it in the theater, or you'll probably wind up feeling a bit cheated.