We've been in the middle of a sort of horror film renaissance, gifted with low-budget but wonderfully-terrifying fare, such as 2013's The Conjuring and the Insidious series, as well as 2012's Sinister. Meanwhile, lesser films like The Marked Ones continue to miss the point about what really scares. Their efforts to hunt for low hanging fruit in the form of standard shock are surrounded by truly boring plot lines. The Mike Flanagan flick Oculus is caught somewhere between them, boasting several strong points but mired in frustrating third act.
Orphaned siblings Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) have a dark secret: their father (Rory Cochrane) and mother (Katie Sackhoff) were victims of possession by an antique mirror. Initially written off as murder/suicide, Kaylie doubts the reports and sets off to prove the mirror's true nature. After Tim is released years later from a mental institution, he learns that Kaylie has used her position as an art dealer to secure the mirror in an attempt to kill it. Returning it to the scene of their parent's deaths, the two learn that the 'Lasser Glass' still has some tricks left in its knotty details, as it soon tries to possess them. As Kaylie and Tim relive the horrific details of their childhood, they must decide if these memories are their own, or if the mirror still wields too much power for them to defeat.
Writer/Director Mike Flanagan expands his 2006 short film into a full-featured thriller, utilizing cinematographer Michael Fimognari's eye to the best effect possible, considering the limitations of the script. While the duo excel at wrapping the children's story with the modern one, Oculus loses steam midway through Act 3. The flat and nearly incomprehensible ending favors the lamest possible scenario one could consider, while our test audience had conjured a half dozen better ones by film's end. There's far too much exposition in the beginning, as Tim wrestles with joining Kaylie on her quest, without really knowing why he eventually chooses to do so. The mirror fails to grow beyond its simple demonic demonstrations, never truly frightening us with its power. Instead, it does all the things a simple possessed item can do: moving Kaylie's cameras, killing plants, and blowing out lights. Moreover, we never learn why it haunts, what it needs from its victims, and how it can be destroyed. You too might find yourself wondering why the duo don't just smash the thing and then go out for a celebratory beer, rather than attempt to prove its malevolent supernatural powers.
Gillan has potential, from her deep stares at the camera to her ability to project different looks throughout the film. One minute she's a sophisticated art dealer, the next a cold-blooded cut-throat with revenge on her mind. Thwaites is serviceable, but his role could have been played by anyone; the same cannot be said of Sackhoff, who also wears many hats here. We'd love to see her in more stuff (Marvel, are you listening?!), as her tough aura from Battlestar Galactica is gently softening.
Paranormal Activity films, but it never reaches the rarefied air of The Conjuring or Insidious. The tension is too slow-burn and the payoff too little as we wait for something interesting to actually happen. We do praise Flanagan for his technique and ability to warp reality, but a story about a badass mirror that doesn't do much was entirely disappointing. We'll see Gillan again soon in Guardians of the Galaxy, but she'll need to do more than stumble around in a nightie for audiences to notice. For now, wait for this one on Netflix.
Oculus is rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language and has a runtime of 105 minutes.
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