Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Fest and its subsequent screening at SXSW this past March, Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” has received almost universal critical acclaim.
As a result, I went in expecting something great, and as loath as I am to say it, I would have walked out if I wasn’t tasked with writing this review. Did we all see the same movie?
“Oculus” focuses on Kaylie (Karen Gillan), a young woman who seeks to prove that the death of her parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) 12 years prior were partly due to the otherworldly effects of a large mirror.
Joined by her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now 21 and freshly released from a psychiatric institution, she sets up a complex series of cameras and laptops to prove that the mirror — acquired with help from her antiquities dealer husband — is to blame.
As all of this happens, we’re given back story in the form of flashbacks. Young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan), 12 and 10 respectively, have moved into a new house with their parents — along with the large mirror. Almost immediately after hanging it up, bizarre things begin to happen around the house, culminating in the event that prompted adult Kaylie’s desire to destroy the mirror.
As the film progresses, the two story lines coalesce into one; the effects of the mirror on adult Kaylie and Tim are given context by seamlessly blending them into the events that lead to Tim’s incarceration. Flanagan deserves kudos for this approach; even when the film devolves into generic haunted house clichés, you can’t help but marvel at the novel way in which the two stories meld.
As Kaylie and Tim march around the home, the events of the past become the events of the present, with younger siblings’ story unfolding at the same time as their adult counterparts and illuminating the sinister agenda of the oculus.
But what is the mirror’s agenda? According to Flanagan, who dutifully answered a series of tough and relatively uncomfortable questions following the screening, “It’s scarier if you don’t know.” It becomes clear early on the modus operandi is deception, convincing Kaylie and Tim that what they’re seeing might not be real. As the past slowly blends in with the present through clever editing and transitions, they’re subjected to the mirror’s mysterious bag of tricks, which range from dying plants to the notion that their words and actions might not be their own.
For a brief moment, it’s actually interesting to see how Flanagan pulls it off, but as things progress, you realize it’s all … well, nonsense. Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard’s decision to eschew any semblance of context or genuine back story to the mirror results in a film is just as deceptive to the audience as the mirror is to Kaylie and Tim.
Admittedly, the use of a mirror — rather than a malevolent spirit or demon haunting the home — is novel enough to make the film stand out among its brethren, but it’s all bone and no meat. When you take a step back and try to see the forest for the trees, “Oculus” is nothing more than a poorly written haunted house movie that attempts to convince you that it’s so much more than that. But it’s not.
“Oculus” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 45 minutes. One and a half stars out of five.