Though not the first feature from writer/director Mike Flanagan, Oculus is the first time he has worked with a known studio, here Blumhouse Productions, best known for their Paranormal Activityseries, and with a budget which could be regarded in any way as significant. Expanded from his own 2006 short Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan both in terms of characters and length (32 to 104 minutes), the original tragic tale of father Alan Russell and his son Tim now also encompasses Tim’s mother Marie and elder sister Kaylie.
Discharged from the psychiatric hospital where he has been resident for the past eleven years, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reluctantly agrees to return with his sister to their childhood home where their parents died, their mother imprisoned and tortured by their father who was subsequently shot by Tim.
Kaylie (Karen Gillan) believes that the events leading up to that night were influenced by a cursed object, the Lasser Glass, an antique mirror which their parents purchased soon after they moved into the new house, to which Tim points out that the new couch also arrived that year; “There is a difference between causation and correlation.”
Working for an auction house, Kaylie has managed to trace the Lasser Glass and intercepted it following its sale, arranging for it to be taken from the warehouse for “restoration” prior to collection by the new owners but instead having it delivered to herself instead. Prepared with cameras, laptops, temperature monitors and a booby trap to destroy the mirror should it get the better of them, Kaylie has asked her cipher of a boyfriend to check in with them every hour, but Tim is resistant to her plans to catalogue “an observable and repeatable phenomenon.”
“You promised you would never forget what happened that night,” she reminds him, and as the night progresses the film recounts in flashback the days leading up to the death of their parents as they recall them, the belief that there was another woman in the house, their mother’s escalating paranoia and their father’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, the children unable to escape or summon help from the outside world.
Despite the clever use of the auctioneer’s spiel to establish the background of the Lasser Glass with the murkier details of the history provided later by Kaylie who has located evidence of at least forty five deaths across four countries in two hundred and fifty years, the mirror itself fails entirely to be threatening, the unexceptional haunting which emanates from within its black cedar frame the standard Hollywood horror fare delivered without flair.
In the present, the leads are poorly served by both Flanagan’s script and direction, Gillan showing no signs of having been brought up in the care system following the death of her parents and Thwaites particularly unconvincing as someone who has never seen the world beyond an institution for eleven years. Other than Kaylie’s obsession with the Lasser Glass where she becomes Little Miss Precautions and Gadgets, neither are twitchy or angsty, both seeming to be focused and well adjusted with the confidence of a pair of all American kids who have lived a life of privilege.
Fortunately, as Alan and Marie, both Argo’s Rory Cochrane and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff are excellent, he a genuinely threatening presence, she moving from a rebellious spirit always on the verge of laughter to a broken woman squeezing agony out of every gesture, and as thirteen year old Kaylie and ten year old Tim both Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan carry their weight.
The spine of the film should be the question over Kaylie and Tim’s recollection of traumatic memories, an uncertainly whether the events they witnessed were real or just a childhood fantasy they constructed to protect themselves from a more terrible truth, but this is rendered moot by the presence of a ghostly figure in the opening scene, an unwarranted fait accompli in which the audience are expected to step into the world of the characters without first being drawn in and no atmosphere or belief in anything which occurs because it has not been sold to the audience.
Horror depends upon the unknown, and Flanagan showing his hand in the opening moments means there is no tension, stepping straight through the looking glass to a final act which lasts 103 minutes as it trudge to an inevitable conclusion which was telegraphed the moment the Kaylie took Tim back to the house.
With the parallel narratives serving only to slow the film what engagement there is rises from the dissolution of the family as they watch their beloved husband and father transform into a violent, unpredictable and dangerous stranger, as did George Lutz in The Amityville Horror, but where a smarter film would offer ambiguity over whether Alan genuinely did awful things of his own volition or if there was an external force acting on him, the reflections seen in Oculus leave no doubt.
Oculus is on general release from Friday 13th June