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Oculus

by Kevin Taft
Contributor
Friday Apr 11, 2014
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A scene from ’Oculus’
A scene from ’Oculus’  (Source:Lasser Productions, LLC)

Truth be told, I’m a horror movie junkie. I write them and watch them, and consider myself particularly knowledgeable about the genre, especially the supernatural ones. I’m also a big fan of finding nice indie horror films that people haven’t really discovered.

"The Pact" is one such film. Super scary with a third act twist that had all the hair on my neck standing straight up. Another is a little film called "Absentia." I watched it one afternoon when I was sick, and boy, did it ever freak me out. While it had its problems (mainly a less than stellar ending) the rest of the film was top-notch. It had characters we care about, a mystery that continued to deepen, and a supernatural element that truly scared.

So I was thrilled to learn that the director of that film -- Mike Flanagan -- had a new movie coming out called "Oculus," this time with a bigger budget and a few names in the cast.

Now, I’ve read a large number of raves reviews of this film, so it’s giving me pause to say that I wasn’t that impressed with this movie. I think Flanagan has a ton of talent, and his editing skills are top-notch. I love the way he builds a story slowly and doesn’t rely on cheap shocks to make you jump. The problem is that there is very little in here that scares you, mostly because we aren’t given that much information to get us nerved up.

The story is that The Russell family comes into the possession of an antique mirror that slowly makes the patriarch of the family (Rory Cochrane) go crazy and start attacking his family. (We’ve seen this before, yes?) But then the mirror causes Mama Russell (Katee Sackhoff) to do the same, and their young kids (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) have to defend themselves. This results in dead parents, little Tim off to a mental institution, and his older sister Kaylie into foster care.

Cut to ten years later, and the now-hot Tim (Brenton Thwaites, Prince Philip from the upcoming "Maleficent") is finally being released from the mental hospital. Sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan "Dr. Who") picks him up after not having seen him in years. You see, Tim has been convinced that all the supernatural stuff he encountered was all in his head. He’s now healthy and ready to start life again. But in minutes Kaylie is telling Tim that she’s found the mirror and they have to "kill it" (whatever "it" is). Soon enough, they are back at their old house (sis was left the house in their parent’s will) setting up the mirror and ready to kill whatever is inside it.

Naturally, things aren’t what they seem and things don’t go the way they were meant to. It’s all fairly standard stuff. The editing saves the film as Flanagan is a master at cutting back and forth between the past and the present. The problem is that by doing this throughout, but building it to a crescendo in the finish, we find that it really doesn’t go anywhere. What we see from the past has already been explained, so we are just seeing something we’ve already been told. There are no surprises. And while the end is startling, it doesn’t really do much narratively.

The acting is good by all, with Gillan and Sackhoff doing admirable work as mother and daughter. Thwaite is fine as well, and Cochrane gets to do his best subdued Jack Nicholson from "The Shining" thing.

And that’s the problem. The film is borrowing from other films so that when all is said and done it just adds up to not a whole hell of a lot. We don’t find out any history of the mirror, except that people have always died around it. We don’t find out what an "oculus" is. We don’t even get an explanation for why dead people keep showing up. What is their purpose? What are they after?

Keeping things under wraps works in some films like Flanagan’s "Absentia," because there was enough to tie it to something else and there were some rules established along the way. Here, all we get is a mirror that somehow makes people go crazy and kill other people. On reflection, I expected to see more in the glass than what I was shown.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

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