Oculus is, to put it bluntly, a few interesting ideas weighed down by mediocrity.
The main complaint is that the film feels far more interested in its structure than its plot. The idea of a haunted mirror is not necessarily a bad one and it could be done very well by the right people. However, there is neither enough style to save the film, nor enough good performances. Maybe it’s a case of too many cooks considering there were four production company openings at the beginning of the film (including, for some reason, WWE Entertainment.) It’s pretty rare in my experience to see that many of them outside of Japan.
Let’s go ahead and give credit where it is due, however. One of the two leads of the film, Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame, is excellent. While in some of the moments (especially the quieter ones), you can catch her accidentally lilting back into her Scottish accent, once the movie picks up, she displays what made her a good companion on the perennial British favorite: she seems intelligent, somewhat snarky and able to show good intensity. Her character is interesting because she is wanting to confront the supernatural head-on and beat it. In some ways she reminds me of the lead in You’re Next, a film that subverted the idea of a damsel in distress running from a killer. The idea of a person going through something traumatic and seeking revenge against evil is definitely a unique one compared to the usual supernatural thriller. (She’s not to the level of one of the Winchesters from Supernatural, but it’s a start.) It is often more compelling when a protagonist makes things happen instead of having things happen to them. Also good, unlike the usual paranormal investigators that populate movie ghost stories (even good ones, like Poltergeist or The Conjuring), she is not an outside observer coming into a situation. She has a personal stake. It’s a good twist, but sadly it is squandered on a film that is making up rules as it goes.
One of the most important parts of setting up a story like this is establishing the rules of the game and having the hero and the villain have to confront each other within those established parameters. (Even if the villain is essentially an inanimate object.) Some of the best moments traditionally in these films are when a loophole is found in these rules that allow one side to gain an unexpected advantage, but there still has to be an internal logic to the proceedings. However, in an effort to create a rigid narrative structure that jumps back and forth from flashbacks to 2003 to a night in present day, all hell breaks loose and it loses all sense of that logic. By the time the two timelines begin seeming to interact with each other, nothing seems to really matter on its race to deliver an ending that, if I were to make a bet, I’d say was the first thing written with everything else built onto to it.
It’s not what I would call a terrible movie. Gillan’s performance keeps that from happening, as well as a turn from Katee Sackhoff as the mother of the family in flashbacks, which is fairly different from most of what I’ve seen from her. But Gillan’s co-star Brenton Thwaites, her younger brother in the film who is coming out of a mental ward, delivers a pretty wooden performance, even by horror film standards. His character seems to exist to be the cliche annoying guy that offers condescending psychological platitudes far beyond any reasonable human being in an extreme situation. Of little note is the sister’s fiance who looks like Nathan Fillion’s metrosexual little brother and their father who displays a disappointing amount of menace in a character which should inspire some pretty genuine fear. Rory Cochrane who plays him has been in better stuff, so maybe it’s a case of not finding the right tone.
Also wooden is the direction of Mike Flanagan and his cinematographer, Michael Fimognari. The duo make it feel more like a fairly generic TV movie than a personal statement. It’s passable, but nothing more. I realize not every filmmaker manages to get the artistic control needed to express their individuality, but this was needing something more energetic. The set-ups seem mostly clinical and I wonder if they weren’t set up specifically to try to get the film a PG-13 rating as there are only a couple of shots in the whole thing that would really push it beyond into R. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I praised The Conjuring for managing to be as scary as it was, while containing almost nothing to justify its R-rating. Oculus has sold itself as a horror film, but it seems much more content to be a supernatural thriller/mind-screw.
It also features a score that reminded me of the type of “moody” interstitial music that Jason Segal’s character would create for a CSI-style detective series in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. It sounds like it comes from a gothed-up white noise machine. Black noise machine? No, that description indicates something more interesting. Wholly unremarkable are words that come to mind.
While I can’t completely dismiss Oculus entirely because of Gillan and the fact that some of the film has stuck with me, I also can’t really recommend it as anything other than a rental.
(Two and a half damns given out of five)