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'Oculus' stumbles, but doesn't shatter

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With the buzz around Oculus you would think a new horror classic had been born. The concept is definitely one that warrants exploring, and with folks behind plenty of horrors most recent successes working on the film it definitely had great things going for it. The problem is Oculus isn't as good as it thinks it is, and while it needs to be commended for pulling off scares and tension instead of blood and gore, it can't quite escape the fact that it doesn't execute as well as it should.

The driving thrust of Oculus is to keep you questioning what is real and what isn't. As we open up we're hurled into what seems like the end of the film as two sibling children cower from a man with a gun. Flash forward 11 years and those children have grown up, the boy, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is just leaving a psychiatric ward and his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan ditching her signature Scottish accent) is there to pick him up. The problem is that while Tim has been convincing himself that an evil looking mirror in their house was not the cause of his mother and father going insane Kaylie has been vowing revenge on the thing. Tim finds himself sucked into Kaylie's plot to finally destroy the mirror as the two basically lock themselves in their parents old house in order to record the mirror's eventual destruction so they can prove their parent's weren't truly bad people.

The movie cleverly cuts back and forth between past and present filling in the plot line as the mirror begins to play tricks on Kaylie and Tim's mind. Ingeniously the film starts weaving the flashbacks into the sibling's hallucinations, further distorting reality for both the characters and the audience. When is now? As the film gets going this jarring question ups the scare ante so that by the end the audience is so ratcheted that the scares come easy without any cheap tricks.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a little while to set up its premise prompting a bit of boredom for the first chunk of the film. Any time an actor has to give a 10 minute monologue explaining the evil of the mirror you know you've got a bit of a plotting issue, even if that actor nails the dialog as Gillan does here. The move also blows its cover far too easily. While by the end of the film you could still argue that it was all in their heads the film is a bit too hell bent on its evil mirror idea to really play along the line it spends its beginning building. Instead of wondering if they're crazy or if there's actually an evil spirit we're treated with ghosts and oddities that basically confirm there is. It's too bad since Tim's disbelief of the evil mirror in the beginning sets up a great opportunity to have played better mind games with the audience.

That isn't to say that ghosts, insane people and evil mirrors aren't scary in this movie. The slow, though not always perfectly executed, build of the film still delivers tension, and as was previously mentioned the apex of the film is incredibly well put together. It is also definitely a slow burn. If you're use to modern horror where people are jumping out of closets and jump cuts are constantly trying to creep out those that are easy to scare this is going to seem like a drag. The problem is that this kind of slow build is how horror should be really done, it's just too bad Oculus doesn't execute it to perfection.

The end of Oculus leaves us wide open for some sequels as well (and annoyed some of the audience members at my screening), but it's also one of the better endings in a horror film in a long while. If writer/director Mike Flanagan, who based this film off his short of the same name, can manage to execute his psychological brand of horror a bit better and keep the audience pulled in we'll probably have one of the better horror franchises around starting up.


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