As is often the case with a better-than-average horror picture, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is in danger of being oversold as being better than it is. Oh, it’s good, and Flanagan — after years of little-seen direct-to-video or barely released efforts — has a well-deserved little hit on his hands. It has a lot going for it. There is a sense of dread that builds nicely. It doesn’t mind taking its time. The acting is solid enough. The soundtrack is effective at keeping the tension going. The interplay between current events and those of 11 years earlier verges on brilliant. (It is worth noting here that Flanagan also edited the film.) But perhaps the most ingratiating aspect of the film is that it is so professionally made. The camera setups are all stable. There’s not a trace of jittery-cam to be found in the entire film. If there is any hand-held camera at all, it’s very good hand-held camera — none of that “it’ll look more exciting if we keep it shaky” business. Having said all that, I’ll also note that the film is longer than it needs to be (a disease of our era), and the ending isn’t all that it might have been. The result is a good but not great movie. Still, it’s certainly one for genre cognoscenti.
The story is a somewhat new wrinkle on the old haunted mirror schtick, but that might be viewed as classic rather than cliched. The somewhat new approach here has little to do with the mirror itself and instead focuses on the main characters. Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, TV’s Dr. Who) is a young woman of 23. Her 21-year-old brother, Tim (Australian TV actor Brenton Thwaites), is just getting out of a mental hospital for the murder of their father 11 years earlier. The truth, of course, is that he didn’t do it. The mirror caused it. While Tim has spent those 11 years being convinced that he was responsible, Kaylie has been tracking down the evil history of the murderous mirror. She’s also been planning to keep their childhood promise of destroying the mirror and proving Tim’s innocence.
None of this is as simple as it may sound. First of all, others have attempted to smash the damned thing, and the results have been, let’s say, inimical to their well-being. Plus, the freshly released Tim really has come to accept his guilt and would rather put all this behind him. He doesn’t do that, of course, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a movie — just the possibly unhinged Kaylie talking to her elaborate video setup about the history of the mirror, waiting for it to do something. Most of this works quite well. OK, I never understood why Kaylie sold the mirror at auction only to have to “borrow” it from the auction house before it’s delivered to its unfortunate new owner — especially since she doesn’t intend on the mirror surving her investigation. That’s more or less a quibble in a movie that expects you to buy into an evil mirror.
Where the movie just doesn’t come together is the ending. It’s forced, almost anticlimactic and ultimately predictable — not enough payoff for the investment in time. Unlike some, I actually liked all the cross-cutting between the time periods. For me, it accentuated the drama of both stories. I also didn’t mind that the mirror is merely presented as evil without any explanation, but I’m an easy sell on that sort of thing. (I know people who won’t be.) But the ending is another matter. It should be big. It should be shocking. Instead, it’s adequate, which is OK, I suppose, but oughtn’t you be able to expect more? Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beautcatcher.