Oculus is a curious beast of a horror film. It tells two stories, eleven years apart, that detail the effect of evil on two generations of the same family. Eleven years ago, Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) and his wife Marie (Katie Sackoff) moved into a new house with their 10-year-old son Tim (Garett Ryan) and 13-year-old daughter Kaylie (Annalise Basso). In a classic dumb horror film move Alan buys a creepy antique mirror to decorate his new office. It is not long before weird things start to happen. Both parents begin to fall under the spell of the mirror, insanity ensues and a form of familial dysfunction occurs. The threat of violence is turned on the children, an effective way of showing family trauma. The parents’ behaviour frightens and disturbs the two children. Something has to give.
Cut to 11 years later and Kaylie (Karen Gillen) is meeting Tim (Brenton Thwaites) who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. She has been looking for the mirror obsessively as an adult and has finally found it. She has also been researching the history of the mirror which, as you could probably guess, is a long and gruesome one. They head to their old home where Kaylie has set up video cameras to record what happens in the house over the next 24 hours. The siblings argue constantly over the cost to themselves of doing this until they notice some strange goings on. It seems the evil has returned.
The most important part of the parallel storytelling is thus: the damage has been done a decade earlier. They have to try and ‘kill’ it so they can move on with their lives. Oculus is the latest hype-laden horror to come from America in an attempt to scare up some of our hard-earned dollars. It does a pretty good job, at least initially. The scenes with the parents at the beginning are effective and eerie. There is a troubling element to proceedings and crucially you feel that the children could be in real trouble here. The idea that parents could turn on their own children is a potent one and it used quite effectively.
The problem with Oculus is not the story itself;lthough well-worn, it can still work. The problem is the structure of the film. The decision to have the story from eleven years ago run parallel to the modern day one almost derails the film’s ambitions. We see the two kids as adults, so crucially we know that they both make it out alive. This robs the older scenes of a tension that should be ratcheted up. There are also some problems towards the climax when it jumps the shark somewhat and tries to tie the two stories up too neatly.This is a real pity as director Mike Flanagan has a really good eye for composition. The framing of some of the shots and the movement of the camera suggests a filmmaker who will definitely make something a lot scarier and better than this.A
All this makes Oculus sound worse than it is. There are some really good moments here (one of the most disturbing involves a light bulb). It is just that they are robbed of some their natural power by the story set-up. Yet the scenes with parents are very good and some interesting themes about memory, marriage and mental illness emerge. The cast is good particularly for a film of a $5m budget. It is always great to see Sackoff (Starbuck!) on the big screen. It is a film worth seeing as there are good scares to be had. If only the story structure could have backed it up we could have had something very good indeed.