Oculus is notch above the usual paranormal activities that seem to arrive in theatres fully formed but are essentially hollow fare for horror fans. It boasts more story, less distracting CCTV and shaky-cam cinematography, and one badass mirror from hell that makes Alice’s looking glass seem downright cloudy in comparison. For all its darkly reflective glamour, however, the increasingly knotty narrative eventually strains even genre credulity and, as oculi go, it’s all a bit dim as to why, what, when, where – and especially how – the hauntees are being haunted.
To be fair, I caught Oculus at a midnight SXSW screening with a festival crowd – strangely, not the best way to take in as convoluted and time-shifting a tale as this – so perhaps I missed some deviously important bit of exposition-heavy backstory amidst the gasps and laughter of the audience. But no, Oculus is too ambitious for its own good. There’s a wealth of “old, dark house” atmosphere here, and a fair number of slow-burn scares, but they never fully compensate for the film’s borderline incomprehensible third act.
Orphaned siblings Tim (Thwaites) and Kaylie Russell (Gillan) reunite long after the untoward death of their parents, and Tim’s subsequent incarceration and release from a mental hospital. While the twentysomething Kaylie has been busy researching her family’s fraught history – mom and dad committed suicide – as well as tracking down an ornate mirror known as the “Lasser Glass,” which she believes to be the dark force behind her family’s disintegration, Tim has managed to convince himself it’s all a childhood fantasy. Guess who’s got the better grip on this family’s slippery reality?
Oculus’ screenwriters Flanagan and Jeff Howard have expanded their original 30-minute short film to feature length, and while often visually striking and boasting a real sense of intellectual playfulness regarding the dreadful mirror, the film nonetheless fails to provide any real details on this darkened looking glass. A shady creature appears, and then disappears, without much explanation, and while that may have worked well enough for the likes of Dario Argento at his height (psychological disorientation and attendant mirrors being a hallmark of the maestro’s best works), Oculus never quite resolves into the image of horror it clearly wishes to be. Kudos, though, to cinematographer Michael Fimognari and score composers, the Newton Brothers – all of whom provide a fertile audiovisual background for Flanagan’s film.
For more on Oculus, see "Smoke and Mirrors," April 11.