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Mirror, mirror on the wall…why are you trying to kill my family? “Oculus”

October 8, 2014

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Mirrors are horrifying, right? Well, no. No, they’re really not. They’re just sort of there. They reflect us in all our imperfections, and…uh…aw screw it. They’re just mirrors. Making a mirror terrifying is a pretty tough row to hoe—making any inanimate object terrifying is tough; t’s why there are more movies about zombies than, say, haunted power-drills—and yet Oculus probably comes as close as you can get. It’s not enough, but, hey they get an A for effort.

So, yeah, Oculus is about a haunted mirror. But this mirror doesn’t, say, run around chasing people or something like that (which is a movie I’d kind of like to see, though I’d never suggest anyone make it). No, this mirror just sits around being sort of passively evil, while humans go batshit crazy around it. As premises go, it’s not a bad one, and what makes Oculus so frustrating is how close it comes to being a good movie. Like, you can almost see a good movie from this one.

Oculus begins with a psychologically-damaged young man named Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the psychiatric facility where he has been treated for the past 11 years after he killed his parents.  For the duration of his stay, Tim has been insisting that something supernatural—something evil—caused the killings, but now Tim is finally able to take responsibility for his actions. And after confessing to a double-homicide, Tim is released to freedom. Um..yay?

So, you gave the mental patient a gun? Yeah, nothing can go wrong with that plan.

So, you gave the mental patient a gun? Yeah, nothing can go wrong with that plan.

Tim moves in with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan, heavenly), who has grown up to be a beautiful, well-put together young woman who works at an auction house. Things should be okay for Tim—I mean aside from the inevitable sexual confusion caused by having Karen Gillan for a sister—except no, Kaylie’s actually more obsessed than he is.

She insists that he was right all along about what happened the night their parents died. That there was something evil in the house, and that evil was a big, Victorian mirror. Kaylie has researched the pedigree of the mirror, and it has a long and terrifying history. Seems anyone owning the mirror comes to an ugly end. There are accidents, suicides, even deaths of starvation and dehydration as if the owners just forgot to eat and drink. And now Kaylie has it. Ruh-roh!

"Fine Victorian mirror...comes with the souls of the damned...let's start the bidding."

“Fine Victorian mirror…comes with the souls of the damned…let’s start the bidding.”

Kaylie managed to procure the mirror for her auction house and has taken it to their old house—now between owners—and set up an elaborate series of cameras to record what it does in their presence, as well timers to remind them to eat. As a coup de grace, she has also rigged a boat-anchor on a timer to shatter the mirror, just in case she and Tim both end up like mom and dad.

Well, naturally, Tim thinks she’s nuts—and he should know from crazy given where he’s been living for the past decade plus. But Kaylie can’t be convinced otherwise, and as the two spar over what they remember we see that traumatic event play out.

I think dad needs some alone time.

I think dad needs some alone time.

We watch as young Kaylie and Tim are moved into this house by their parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff—and when, precisely, did Katee Sackoff become mom material?). The movie cross-cuts between the increasingly malevolent goings-on in the present-day house, and the domestic nightmare their family sank into all those years ago.

Dad did the made the supremely-unwise decision to keep the mirror in his office, and under its sway he basically Jack Torrences out, while mom grows more and more delusional. Pretty soon, the house no longer has electricity, dad spends all day staring into the mirror and ripping out his fingernails, while mom is chained to a radiator in the bedroom in a borderline-feral state.

Over the long night, it becomes increasingly clear that the mirror is not going to sit still while Tim and Kaylie try and kill it (well, it will, but figuratively speaking it’s not going to). And the night becomes an increasingly-terrifying series of psychological attacks against Kaylie and Tim, whose defenses grow less and less solid with each successive assault.

"Calm down. I've faced down Daleks and Weeping Angels."

“Calm down. I’ve faced down Daleks and Weeping Angels.”

Oculus is disappointing because it does a lot right. Tim and Kaylie’s family implosion is genuinely unsettling and turns horrifying, Likewise, director Mike Flanagan—expanding his short Oculus Chapter 3-The Man with the Plan—creates a palpable sense of suspense and dread as the story goes on. And he even manages to imbue the mirror with something like a personality, a genuine air of menace and malevolence. He manages to make it as much a monster as any axe-wielding psycho.

The cast is all quite good, but there are some critical missteps in the casting and direction. Katee Sackhoff radiates radiates wild abandon–no matter how many mom-sweaters you put her in, her smile always looks like the last thing you’ll remember before you wake up handcuffed to a bed in a Tiajuana flea-pit hotel with a warrant for your arrest. And Karen Gillan…(sigh)

"Aw c'mon...have another tequila shot..."

“Aw c’mon…have another tequila shot…”

Karen Gillan’s great, isn’t she? She’s just awesome. Even when she’s a bald, blue cyborg, she’s eminently desirable. And while she makes Kaylie credibly obsessed and possibly unhinged, she never quite takes off. I blame the struggle to maintain her bland, American accent and tamping down her Scottish burr. It’s impossible to watch her and not wish she’d just go full Amy Pond and shout, “Oi, mirror-thing! Come and see what I got for ye!”

Ultimately, Oculus is just too padded to completely land its punches. It’s got some scares, a pervading sense of doom, and an uncompromising story, and yet it just never quite closes the deal. The movie never pops the clutch and goes in full-scale horror. The psychological terror never quite metastasizes into overt horror.

Anyway, Oculus is still pretty creepy. And, hey, you get to watch Karen Gillan for 90 minutes.

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