[Screen It]

"OCULUS"
(2014) (Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A young woman sets out to prove that a centuries old mirror was responsible for the deaths of her parents more than a decade ago when she and her younger brother were just kids.
PLOT:
It's nearing Tim Russell's (BRENTON THWAITES) twenty-first birthday and he's about to be released from the mental hospital where he's been held for more than a decade. His twenty-three-year-old art auction house employee sister, Kaylie (KAREN GILLAN), picks him up, but is surprised that he'd rather stay in a hotel than in the home she shares with her fiancÚ, Michael (JAMES LAFFERTY). That stems from a family tragedy 11 years ago that claimed that lives of their parents, Marie (KATEE SACKHOFF) and Alan (RORY COCHRANE).

Having secured a four-centuries old ornate mirror that once resided in their father's office, Kaylie is determined to make Tim honor a promise they made together that fateful night more than a decade earlier. He's reluctant, not only from having treatment he believes has gotten him past that incident, but also because he's sure Kaylie is obsessively delusional in her belief that the mirror is a portal into the supernatural from which only death has emanated for the past 400 years.

She is positive that's true, however, and has set up an elaborate tech system in their old family home to record proof of that and thus clear their father's name in regards to what happened all of that time ago. With Tim initially still skeptical, we see flashback scenes when 10-year-old Tim (GARRETT RYAN) and 12-year-old Kaylie (ANNALISE BASSO) had no idea what was about to transpire upon the arrival of that mirror in their new home. As spooky stuff starts happening and their parents become progressively unhinged, it's all the kids can do to survive, all while their adult counterparts must contend with a return of the supernatural occurrences in the present.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Beyond humans, only a handful of other species in the animal kingdom can recognize themselves in mirrors, including members of the ape family, dolphins and elephants. I've always wondered, though, if any of those critters can freak themselves out by just staring intently at their own reflection until they get a serious case of the shivers. I've done it and I imagine you've done it at some point in your life as well.

Horror filmmakers are well aware of that fact and have moved well beyond the simple, supernatural talking mirror in "Snow White." Whether it's using them simply to induce jump scenes (usually when a medicine cabinet is closed to reveal someone or something in the room with the character) or to create a memorable scene (who can forget the imagined moment in "Poltergeist" when the dude starts digging into his face or when Wendy notes in "The Shining" that "redrum" gains an entirely new meaning in the bedroom reflection), mirrors are a staple of the genre.

Heck, they've even been major plot elements in flicks ranging from "Candyman" to the appropriately titled (but horribly put together) "Mirrors." That reflective trend continues in "Oculus," the last horror pic from the "Blumhouse" farm that's released the likes of "The Purge," "Sinister" and all of the "Paranormal Activity" flicks over the years. This one's helmed by Mike Flanagan who works from a script by Jeff Howard.

The plot is simple but efficient as a nearly 21-year-old man (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the mental hospital where he's spent the last eleven years of his life for murdering his father. The powers that be claim he's no longer a threat to society and thus he's released to his 23-year-old sister (Karen Gillan) who immediately pressures him to help her cap some unfinished business from that fateful day more than a decade ago.

While he believes she's delusional and coping with that past tragedy through an elaborate story she reinforces through finding convenient clues, she's certain that the old family mirror, that she's just recently reacquired, is a supernatural portal for some sort of evil responsible for killing more than 40 people over the past four centuries, including their parents.

She almost believes his amateur assessment of her psychological state, but we know (based on the previews) that it's only a matter of time before thing start going bump in the middle of the night, so to speak, and the creepy stuff starts escalating until either one or both of them end up dead or the mirror is smashed. As in many such a genre film, Flanagan and Howard show us flashbacks to the pivotal period when the main characters were kids (played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) living with their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane).

Yet, rather than start off with that or include a brief interlude of showing the family tragedy from all those years ago, the filmmakers keep returning to the past, mixing in those scenes of old with those of the present. It's an interesting technique in that it compares and contrasts how kids and young adults process such occurrences, but it also allows for some greater creativity in seamlessly segueing between the periods as well as occasionally having them overlap in fun and sometimes spooky ways.

"Sometimes" is the key operative in play, however, as the scary stuff starts to wear thin after a while as the story -- once set up via the premise and dual periods -- starts begging for additional content. While the "kid watches in horror as the parent become increasingly deranged thanks to evil forces" angle worked brilliantly in "The Shining," it starts to lose its grip here as the plot unfolds and goes through the to-be expected motions.

I can't say I was ever bored and there are enough decent jolts and creepy moments to hold one's interest until the final big twist, if you will, at the end. It's just that the material revolving around the supernatural story isn't explained thoroughly or kept mysterious enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Once we recognize that the scenario has been painted, we simply watch it play out, without enough vested interest in the characters (the performers aren't given enough depth or substance with which to work) or the resolution. In the end, the reflection that "Oculus" gives off is that of parts of other similar films we've already seen, and thus it rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 1, 2014 / Posted April 11, 2014


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