Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
Directed by: Mike Flanagan (“Absentia”)
Written by: Mike Flanagan (“Absentia”) and Jeff Howard (debut)
For a solid two minutes in “Oculus,” it seems like the filmmakers are about to turn the possessed-object-terrorizes-a-family formula on its ear, offering up a plotline wherein one character nearly convinces us that the protagonist has actually fabricated a reality in which the destruction of her childhood was caused by a haunted mirror and not, in fact, that special brand of extraordinary human misery that sometimes tears people apart. It’s always an exciting little zap when horror movies find new ways to tell a story and subvert clichés but, no, it’s a haunted mirror after all. This doesn’t make it bad, really, just more of the same.
The haunted mirror in question was once in the childhood home of Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), an antique brought in by their father (Rory Cochrane) to class up his office. The mirror’s arrival is followed by increasingly strange and deadly occurrences in the house. Plants die, the family dog succumbs to a mystery illness, and their mother (Katee Sackhoff) begins to lose her mind after staring blankly at the mirror for hours. The paranormal activity comes to a crescendo with Kaylie and Tim fleeing their possessed mother and father, both of whom end up shot to death; their mother by their father, and their father by Tim. Kaylie ends up in foster care, Tim ends up in the back of a police car.
Eleven years later, Tim is scheduled for release from the mental institution he’s been confined to since the shooting, while Kaylie has spent years tracking down the evil mirror on a mission to kill it. She brings Tim to their childhood home with an elaborate plan including cameras, computers, and a boat anchor meant to destroy the mirror once and for all. But the mirror has other plans, and starts to fight back.
The two plotlines of “Oculus” unfold almost at the same time, jumping from present day to flashbacks for the entirety of the film, eventually co-mingling the timelines to a most confusing effect. The climax in particular is a labyrinth of flashbacks and editing tricks that doesn’t earn its shocking ending; instead it feels like someone jamming a bunch of Final Cut Pro sequences together until they get to the part that goes splat. And storytelling tricks aside, the film can’t escape the fact it’s borrowing from predecessors like “The Shining,” “Friday the 13th” and “Paranormal Activity.” Still, though, “Oculus,” produced in part by the WWE, is solid enough for a decent Saturday night scare and mercifully wrestler-free.