It’s all about surfaces. Oculus, the latest in a long line of supernatural horror films, spends a great deal of time worrying about the superficial surface. This obsession is well rewarded as visually, Oculus looks pretty good.
As siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) attempt to entice a supernatural demon from an ancient mirror, director Mike Flanagan works to coax something just as elusive out of a mundane script, substance. Ultimately Flanagan is more successful than his characters.
As a horror film, Oculus falls short of the mark, with the focus on loud bangs and sudden movements that startle rather than scare. As a psychological thriller, it almost makes it. The film consists of two parts, the past and the present, inter-cutting the death of the siblings’ parents with their attempts to come to terms with the past. This produces some cool visual tricks that with stronger leads would probably have been extremely effective. Unfortunately Gillan and Thwaites are wooden and utterly uninteresting, which could be because they are both expending too much energy trying to suppress their natural accents to actually create characters that we can get behind. They suffer even more in comparison to their past counterparts, where Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents manage to transcend the weak script and bring an emotional core to emotionless material. The younger children in the flashback are also great, giving us real kids and not some writer’s interpretation of them which is so common on film.
The family’s disintegration into anarchy touches on the horrific, although it is slightly hindered by a bit too much gore and going for shock value over the emotional punch, which is the film’s greatest weakness. It’s the stillness and the slow decent into madness that is truly horrifying. It’s the not knowing why that makes the skin crawl.
Beyond the gimmick of the supernatural being in the mirror, the premise of Oculus is that the senses can be fooled. If you can’t trust what you see and hear than what can be trusted? The moments where this is realized is where Oculus manages to induce chills, especially when past and present start to blend together into a single moment. This understanding is why the flashbacks are so emotionally affecting. As the family begins to degrade, so does the trust that was taken for granted, that of a child in their parents and that between committed partners. Nothing is more terrifying than to be persecuted by the person who used to be your protection. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent anchor in the present, which plays out as an illogical revenge fantasy that appears doomed from the start. This is unfortunate because Flanagan clearly has some talent as a director and a fair bit as an editor. Oculus could have been much more, but unfortunately remains a frustrating diversion with brilliance lurking just beyond our perception.