Oculus is a fantastic horror movie for fifty minutes: well-paced, tense, lifting a veil on something horrible having happened without showing so much as to ruin the suspense. It’s too bad that for the last fifty minutes the film deflates under the weight of its own discussion, and just deteriorates into a tedious exercise of jump scares while we watch the clock and wait to see which of the couple of possible endings will emerge as the one jotted down on the script.
It’s a shame too, because the film has such promise for its first half that is squandered in the second. And the acting of the female leads is quite good, with Karen Gillan really infusing her character with a strong and frenetic presence, and Annalise Basso knocking it out of the park as the same character at age 12. Katee Sackhoff is likewise wonderful, further demonstrating that she deserves far more significant acting gigs than usually fall her way.
The movie starts promisingly, with flashbacks of memory quickly revealed to be inaccurate, a kid released from a mental ward where he’s spent the last decade, and a mysterious and exquisite mirror purchased at auction, his sister - the other survivor of those flashback nights - looking on in some strange mix of terror, hatred, and eagerness. The story unfolds slowly, with a delicious patience. Tonight they’re going to kill what killed their parents. And what killed their parents had something to do with the mirror, and the way it could manipulate what you saw and experienced.
The son resists, insists that her memories of those days are false, insists that since they were just kids, they remembered it wrong. He’s worked out what actually happened, the mundane rationalizations that their children’s minds glossed fantasy and supernatural horror over. And it’s a very well-played bit for a while: the tension between mutually exclusive sets of memories of the same events of horror.
The story is further enhanced through the flashbacks of ten years previously, when the family is first moving into this house with their new set of fancy antique furniture. So we see watch the happy family descend into madness, through the smallest of manipulations: the woman glimpsed to seed doubts of an affair, the cruel words whispered in a loved one’s voice. That’s where the terror in this lies, not in jump scare monsters from corners, but in making people think that their loved ones are twisting knives into them. Into being unable to trust your own senses, and being slowly boarded up in a prison of the mind.
But that tension falls apart halfway through. See, by that point Karen Gillan (oh sure, the character has a name, but let’s not split hairs here) has built a Ghost Hunters style rig of cameras, alarms (to jolt you out of hallucination), and even a deadman’s switch for smashing the mirror. And she rattled through a horrific history of the mirror demonstrating that its owners always die horrifically and in ways that suggest they thought that they were doing other things. The problem is, that the movie almost immediately loses all its momentum, because what made it so good was the tension between what happened in the past and their memories of it. But since it’s made clear by the halfway point that Gillan’s memories are the accurate ones, then that tension goes away.
And then it’s just fifty minutes of jump scares, and the characters doing one thing and waking up doing something else. Because the mirror can overlay whatever it wants on your reality. But there’s a big narrative problem with that. If nothing we see is real, and there is no way to logic your way out of the rabbit hole, then what we are seeing on the screen quickly loses all meaning. It’s possible to make this an interesting exercise. Other films take the opportunity to explore fantastic and surreal events, or deeply disturbing and horrific ones. This film takes none of those opportunities.
Further, it neglects the central tenet implied by its mythology. All the historical evidence of people dying around the mirror had the wonderful narrative appeal of being tricked into things by their own senses. None of that really works with the experience of the protagonists’ childhood, in which their parents, to put it kindly, just go nucking futs. The mirror is interesting as a plot device when it tricks people, but once it just magically makes people do violent things and skitter around like extras from The Exorcist, once those doing the violence are intoning things like “I’ve seen the Devil”, then the film loses everything that made it interesting in the first place.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.