By Jessica Delfanti | April 14, 2014
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan
Anyone that spent a sleepover discussing the “Bloody Mary” urban legend knows one thing to be true: mirrors are creepy. Whether they’re revealing a doorway to a sinister world, delivering the voice of cruel truth in fairytales, or reflecting the man waiting in your backseat, they appear again and again as threatening symbols. This association becomes the focus of Mike Flanagan’s creepy family story, Oculus.
Here, the mirror is just what you’d expect: antique, shiny, and full of the spirits of dead people. You know, like mirrors are. It turns out, eleven years ago, a family purchased the mirror and were subjected to slow-burning torture as its influence drove the mother (Katee Sackhoff) insane, the father (Rory Cochrane) to murder, and the children (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) to violent self-defense. In present day, the children have grown into two terribly adjusted adults. Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is fresh out of a mental asylum and packed to the brim with therapy soundbites while his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), has handled the trauma in a different way: she’s tracked down the Mirror and intends to “kill it.”
Most of the film plays out in their childhood home, the place where they were nearly murdered by their own father years before. In a bit of amateur but effective framing, flashbacks are spliced with modern day moments to tell the story of their parents’ experience with the Mirror. Flanagan here touches on the film’s most interesting theme: the question of memory’s integrity, particularly after trauma. Flanagan makes a clever choice in bleeding flashbacks into present day, so that characters in present are sometimes portrayed as their child selves, making an observation on how a traumatized psyche can become trapped and incapable of growth. As Tim employs his therapy to question the validity of Kaylie’s version of events, there is an echoey question that hangs in the air: what is “real” in the world of trauma and mental rationalization? And when terror exists, does its “realness” truly matter?
Unfortunately, this is about as far as the film is willing to go with the subject–and it quickly stoops into standard horror fare. Cochrane and Sackhoff put visible effort into working with their material, but their characters are a bit stale and feel clipped out of The Amityville Horror. Gillan’s adult Kaylie is the biggest weakness of the film–Flanagan frames her constantly in closeups and she plays every emotion with a rabbit-like quiver, overacting with an almost admirable fervor.
While it might be acceptable for a horror film that riffs on famous campfire stories to not be overly original, Oculus misses several opportunities to bring its own twist. Instead, Flanagan opts for cliches: ghostly women with long dark hair and shiny eyes, zombie-like psychotic breaks and spirits with gaping mouths. Oculus often feels like a mashup of “best of” horror tropes–while at times, the viewer recognizes something good, in whole it has nothing to remember.
What’s worse is that it pulls the least interesting theme from the “mirror” concept–gasp, it’s almost as if the present mirrors the past!–instead of something more chilling and profound, like the way that a mirror shows unfettered reality about oneself.
I was hoping for a film that would send me home with plans to cover all my mirrors before I went to bed. Instead, Oculus mostly made me think about buying some antiques for my apartment. Though…I don’t think I’ll be repeating “Bloody Mary” at midnight anytime soon.