Friday, April 18, 2014


 2 / 5 

Oculus, the story of a sinister mirror, has the makings of a decent Twilight Zone episode, but is expanded to unsustainable length and padded with unremarkable, unhelpful filler.  Although it's not as bad as the teenage boys in front of us seemed to think ("Whoever wrote that movie," said one, "is an asshole"), it never fulfills the impressive potential it shows in its first third.

The movie gets off to an intriguing start, as 21-year-old Tim is released from a mental hospital for apparently killing his father 10 years earlier.  His older sister doesn't harbor any grudges -- in fact, she doesn't blame him for the murder; to her, the real culprit is the mirror that used to hang in the father's office and now has been purchased at auction.  Conveniently, she works at the auction house, and arranges to take possession of the mirror.

Here, Oculus sets up an intriguing proposition.  The movie offers itself as less of a straightforward horror story and more of a psychological thriller.  Kaylie, played by the poised and confident Karen Gillan, has researched the history of the mirror and come to the conclusion that it's no coincidence ghoulish, ghastly things have happened to whomever owns it.

The mirror has a mind of its own, and wreaks havoc on the minds of those in its presence.  Plants and animals who come too close begin to die, and so does the reason and sanity of anyone who spends too much time near it.

For a while, Oculus ratchets up the tension and de-emphasizes the gore and "jump scare" moments that fill most horror movies.  Kaylie has put together an elaborate experiment to prove that the mirror, not her brother (and not her father), caused the crimes a decade earlier.  Yet as she and her brother watch, very weird things begin to happen.

The weird stuff is fun.  Director Mike Flanagan messes around nicely with time and perception, and Oculus looks like it might deliver as a more accessible version of, say, Cube or Pi.

Then it loses its nerve.  The kids' handsome parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) move quickly into Jack Torrance territory while stringy-haired ghosts pour from the mirror, and the story loses track of where it is and what it's trying to do -- the movie becomes not about the mirror but about psycho parents attacking their kids, and they chase each other around their quiet suburban home in ways we've seen too many times before, blood dripping and eyes bulging.

At 30 minutes, the story might have sustained itself on intrigue alone; at 104 minutes, there's nowhere for it to go, and the "is-it-real-or-is-it-in-their-minds" trick starts feeling like the final, disastrous season of Lost, when the writers threw anything they could up on screen to distract from the fact that they had lost sight of the story.

The lead actors, Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, certainly try hard, and do much more than scream and hide.  They're committed, sincere performers, and their honesty is at times enough to forgive some of the bigger mistakes.  They're sufficiently freaked out by what they're seeing, or not seeing, but even Gillan can scream, "It isn't real!  It's not actually happening" so many times before it grows old.

Then there's that final 10 minutes, which recalls playwright Anton Chekov's famous axiom about the gun that needs to go off is brought vividly to life.  In this case, the gun probably shouldn't have been there in the first place -- not that it doesn't go off.  It does, all right, just exactly as you imagined it would, leading Oculus to a conclusion that is preposterously unsatisfying.

There's this, though: The mirror at the center of the story clearly works.  Why else would a smart, engaging, intriguing movie become so dull, listless and predictable?  Something sucked the life out of it.

I hope that mirror is happy now.

Viewed April 18, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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