Have you ever seen a movie that you knew had a sizable amount of problems, but you couldn’t keep yourself from recommending it? There were issues abound, some that would potentially sink a lesser film. But the movie just absolutely nails one or two things, and wouldn’t you know it, those are the things that matter. So you’re caught between two opposite ends of the quality spectrum, picking apart equally interesting failures and successes. Has this ever happened to you?
Well, it’s happened to me. And I can think of a particularly apt example.
Director: Mike Flanigan
Release Date: April 11, 2014
The plot of Oculus is a difficult one to recap, for multiple reasons. Although it begins in the present day, following Kaylie (Karen Gillian, sporting a pretty decent American accent) and her brother Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), the movie jumps between current events and the siblings’ childhood almost seamlessly. Chronologically, here’s the rundown. Back in 2002, the Russell family moved into a new home and bought an antique mirror (called the Lasser Glass) to spruce the place up. Except — get this — the mirror is evil! As it slowly takes control of Russell parents Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff), the children are lowered into a veritable Hell from which an ordinary pair of pre-teens could not hope to escape.
Thing is, we already know how that part ends from the word “go.” Alan kills Marie, and Tim is forced to kill Alan. Poor Tim is put in a mental institution for ten years, but now he’s out and Kaylie wants him to assist her in killing the nefarious Lasser Glass. Years of therapy have conditioned Tim to believe the mirror is just a mirror, and he thinks his sister needs help getting over her delusions. So he agrees to sit in on her experiment that will hopefully prove the supernatural reflective surface was responsible for the Russell murders. Kaylie has precautions and measuring devices of every…well, measure.
If done properly, this could have made for a super interesting psychological thriller. Who’s right? Is Kaylie insane, or is the mirror home to some kind of horrific entity? Sadly, the movie answers that question pretty early on. Even before the actual question of Kaylie’s sanity is even brought up, we know what the mirror’s deal is. And then Oculus really puts that idea to bed once the experiment gets started.
As a result, the film makes a somewhat harsh turn into Spooktown once it calls its own bluff. Oculus’ gimmick is the Lasser Glass’ ability to cast powerful tricks illusions on its victims. This wreaks utter havoc on the movie’s structure, because once it’s established that both Kaylie and Tim have no idea what’s real, the audience has a similar problem. It’s hard to get invested when you’re not sure if what you’re seeing will have any effect on the story.
There are moments where Kaylie uses an iPhone to discern what’s real and what isn’t, but I could easily count them on a single hand and still have enough fingers to write this review. Props where props are deserved; Oculus sets up rules for its supernatural force and follows them. But some additional rules in favor of the protagonists would help make Oculus more than a series of acceptably connected memorable visuals.
But hey, those visuals are incredible. There are some images from Oculus that I would buy if they were repurposed as fancy prints. Director Mike Flanigan certainly knows how to use a limited budget, crafting a haunted house that feels real, until Kaylie and Tim’s parents go all psycho.
As for the performances, the small cast really gives their all. Even the child actors portraying young Kaylie and Tim are just the right mix of vulnerable and brave. Interestingly enough, it’s current-day Kaylie and Tim that feel like the weak links. Thanks to both kids and the stellar team of Sackhoff and Cochrane, the 2002 flashbacks are where the movie derives most of its tension. We know the end point, and getting there is a really fun ride. You see, the mirror does have some influence over the young Russells, but they’re still doing things that matter within the story. But when it comes time to jump ahead 10 years, the film almost gets boring. It all comes back to the constant trickery illusions; these mini-twists are invalidating whole scenes. It just gets dull after a while.
The 2012 scenes aren’t without great scares, but what makes a really good horror film is some level of empathy. Maybe a higher bodycount in 2012 would’ve added some tangible stakes? By this point, you may be asking why they just didn’t smash the mirror before they powered it up for the experiment? That is an excellent question. I do not have a satisfactory answer for you, and neither does the movie. Kaylie wants to prove her family’s innocence, but she also knows what the Lasser Glass is capable of. What was her plan after she got the evidence? Smash it then? Oculus’ present-day scenes aren’t exactly complicated on the surface, but I’m still having trouble piecing together Kaylie and Tim’s perpetually shifting motivations. And I’ve seen this movie twice.
If I seem down on Oculus, that’s because the movie is definitely a case of the final product being more than the sum of its parts. The visuals are stellar and the scares are viscerally pleasing. And this is a horror movie, so it’s good that Oculus nails those aspects. But if you’re not a horror junkie itching for your next fix, maybe there’s something else at your local cinema that would fit the bill a little better. You’ll probably just walk out confused.
At the very least, WWE Studios has finally produced something worth a damn.