Supernatural horror films have experienced a prolific resurgence recently. Blumhouse Productions has frequently been at the forefront of this movement with such popular titles as “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Insidious.” As with any category of film there comes a set of clichés that defines it, so it’s welcome when a horror film tries to branch out on its own and break the mold. Unfortunately, the new Blumhouse produced film, “Oculus,” makes passes at something fresh and comes up short in the process.
10 years after a traumatic event sent Tim Russell into the psychotherapy ward, he has recovered on his 21st birthday and is released into the care of his sister Kaylie. Tim has since repressed the belief that supernatural forces caused the terrible event, but Kaylie still refuses to believe otherwise and obtains the ominous mirror that she believes is the source of their trouble. As the siblings set up recording equipment to prove what no one else believes, the mirror awakens to twist reality to its will.
At the same time, “Oculus” shifts between these events of the present and those of the past where the Russell family was torn apart by the mirror’s omnipotent force. In spite of the present day scenes being the framework for the story, the stuff in the past is where “Oculus” finds its most compelling material. The actors cast in the film can be attributed to this, and while Karen Gillen (old Kaylie) “Doctor Who” fame is given top billing, her and Brenton Thwaites (old Tim) are overshadowed by their younger acting counterparts, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan, adapting his own short film of the same name, would have been better off sticking to the story of young Tim and Kaylie experiencing the deterioration of their family. Instead, he creates an awkward parallel structure that both withholds information simply for the sake of forcing a sense of mystery and yet explains too much. In the present, it’s hard to identify with the characters initially when we don’t fully understand their grief. On the other hand, when Kaylie drops a load of exposition explaining everything, it robs the past story of its unpredictability.
Another question of execution comes with the portrayal of the mirror’s supernatural grip. The film is at its strongest when it creates an atmosphere where anything can happen and what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily reality. When Flanagan toys with the audience and keeps things low-key, like in one hair-raising scene concerning a light bulb, the psychological ambiguity he builds up showcases the films potential. When he turns to run-of-the-mill ghost frights, it dilutes the ingenuity of the premise.
The more frightful material comes from the strange behavior of young Kaylie and Tim’s parents, played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane. Their descents into madness bring to mind comparisons to “The Shining,” and the storyline would have been strong enough on its own. The film almost seems to self-consciously recognize this as the plotline in the present becomes more and more like an obligatory footnote. Very little actually happens after the siblings set up shop with the mirror, and the ending only serves as a shock since the plot hasn’t been building up to much.
There’s a compellingly chilling story that can be found within “Oculus,” but it is buried in a shroud of cleverness that hinders rather than enhances the film. Making an attempt to shake things up is not enough, especially when that attempt simultaneously dulls the overall impact and resorts to some old tricks.