The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>Oculus</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Oculus

A pair of siblings attempt to destroy the centuries old mirror responsible for their parents' deaths.

Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane

After moving into a new home with his wife, Marie (Sackhoff), and kids, Kaylie and Tim, software developer Alan (Cochrane) purchases an 18th century Scottish mirror for his home office. Soon his behaviour begins to change and the kids have visions of a strange woman in their father's office. Marie also becomes increasingly unhinged and it all culminates in a night of violence that leaves Alan and Marie dead, Kaylie placed in a foster home, and Tim consigned to a sanitarium. 11 years later, Tim (Thwaites) is released and reunites with Kaylie (Gillan), who has purchased the mirror. Reluctantly, he joins his sister in returning the mirror to their childhood home, where Kaylie plans to destroy it and thus end its reign of terror.
It's not unusual for an inanimate object to act as the antagonist of a horror film. Usually it's a haunted building of some sort, but more random and seemingly innocent items have had far-fetched plots woven around them, the most hilarious of which has to be 1991's The Refrigerator, which came with the ingenious tagline, "No survivors, just leftovers!" For some reason, mirrors have become a staple of the horror movie. Anthology movies as disparate as 1945's Dead of Night and 1974's From Beyond the Grave both featured segments based around evil mirrors, while the 2003 Korean horror Into the Mirror was remade for western audiences as 2008's Mirrors, and I doubt there's a more overworked cliche in horror than the medicine cabinet mirror jump scare. So what can Oculus bring to this particular table?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a lot. Mike Flanagan's film is a feature length expansion of his 2005 30 minute short of the same name. I've always believed expanding a short into a feature is akin to attempting to increase the size of your member; whatever method you apply, the results are destined to get pretty messy. After all, it's not the length that matters, it's what you do with it, and Flanagan does little to justify the extra 75 inches, er, sorry, minutes.
The movie's two timelines run in parallel, which seems a strange choice given we more or less know from the opening sequence how one of them pans out. Watching Alan and Marie gradually lose the plot reminds us of The Shining, and as with Kubrick's film, we don't spend enough time with them pre-insanity for their rapid decline to have the necessary emotional impact. The present day sequences are slightly more satisfying, thanks to a gripping performance by Gillan as a flame-haired heroine obsessed with vengeance to the point of psychosis. Seeing her become more and more unhinged is the closest the film comes to being an effective fright flick (though maybe growing up in a Celtic land has left me with a fear of crazed redheads).
To Flanagan's credit, he doesn't take the easy route and never cheats the audience with gimmicky sound effects in place of visual scares. The images he presents may not be scary, and certainly add nothing towards creating the required atmosphere of dread, but he valiantly allows them to fail on their own merits. If only more horror film-makers were so brave.

Eric Hillis