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Oculus (2014)

Shard Attack

Oculus' tag line is "You see what it wants you to see." We'll, I'd hoped to watch a decent horror movie, but apparently Mike Flanagan's haunted-mirror flick had other plans. Scary stuff, indeed.

In truth, the only reason I was half-way excited for Flanagan's big-budget, big-screen debut was because of the terrifically creepy and imaginative indie film, Absentia. The trailers for Oculus are dishearteningly generic, from the Shining-inspired slow-motion bleeding mirror, to the ho-hum imagery of a zombified Katee Sackhoff looking down and then looking into the camera with glowing, reflective eyes. But I held out hope, thinking, "This is just marketing doing their job--getting asses in seats. The movie itself will be intense and inventive, just like Absentia!"

What can I say? I'm an idiot.

The film's setup is inspired: Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) has just purchased an ornate, centuries-old mirror at auction, with the intent of exorcising whatever demons compelled her father (Rory Cochrane) to attack his family ten years earlier. Little brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) wound up institutionalized after shooting the old man to death, and has been released just in time for Kaylie to rope him into helping. We flash backward--visiting the Russells as they excitedly settle into a new house in the early 2000s; and forward--where the grown-up children battle self-doubt and twisted illusions, which the mirror springs upon them as a method of self-defense.

Sadly, the fun ends early. Kaylie's endless speeches about the mirror's history and the elaborate recounting of all the booby traps and alarms she's devised have all the self-serious, monotone charm of a grumpy Geek Squad employee trying to up-sell a service package. Also, her plan doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. For example, what's so helpful about a table with five identical, unlabelled alarm clocks on it, when they're all set to go off at different times--as reminders to perform different tasks? Especially when it's been established that the mirror can reshape reality to its own ends?

Much like A Nightmare on Elm Street (which featured a similar-in-concept/classier-in-execution trap-building montage--complete with alarms, phone calls from outside parties, and a spring-loaded weapon perched above an entry way), Oculus relies heavily on "What is real?" tricks to push its story along. These are very choppy waters to play in, because if a filmmaker includes one too many such switcheroos, they risk the audience shutting down completely; if everything's an illusion, then nothing is of consequence.

Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (who based the feature off Flanagan and Jeff Seidman's similarly titled 2007 short film) zoom right past the edge and into silly territory, focusing more on "gotcha" moments than character development, big ideas, or hard-earned scares. In doing so, they bring all of their disjointed cinematic reference points to the surface, making Oculus little more than a "greatest hits" collection of horror movies past.

This shouldn't be surprising, I guess, considering the film was produced by Jason Blum, the king of the (comparatively) low-budget blockbuster. With series like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge under his belt, he's famous for assembling teams of horror-fiend Rumplestiltskins, who spin a few million dollars into global, multi-billion-dollar franchises. Oculus may be the laziest cash-in of the bunch, with just about every genre staple thrown at the screen--minus any effort to make these things actually scary. We leap, for instance, from mom not feeling too well and dad acting a little strange to mom chained to a wall in the master bedroom, barking like a rabid dog, and dad stalking the house with a huge-ass gun. I'm sure the filmmakers had intended to explain this jerkiness with their nifty time-hopping structure, but I wasn't the only one laughing incredulously at my screening.

Worst of all, Oculus doesn't even pass the Laundry Room Test. My creepy downstairs laundry room takes on a life of its own whenever I watch a scary movie. I run in, switch on the lights, do my business, and scram--never looking into the far, dark corners of the room, for fear of something looking back. After I finish this review, I'm going to wash my darks, and will likely stroll right to the washer and take my time measuring detergent to the line; if I hear any suspicious thumps behind me, it won't be a stretch to conjure up an image of Rory Cochrane doing his best cabin-fever-Nicholson impression and let loose a hearty giggle.

In fairness, Cochrane is fine--as are the rest of the cast. Sackhoff sticks out a bit, playing less a horror-movie mom than a Lifetime Movie battered spouse--that, I'd wager, comes down to direction. The child versions of Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, respectively) are also okay, but something about the way their characters are inserted into the story feels more like a Goonies homage than a successor to The Shining. It's just a shame to see so many likable actors playing out weird scenes of varying energy, in service of a screenplay that doesn't know what to do with them.

Oculus features a lot of talking, but that doesn't make it a smart movie; Flanagan and company simply take too long in reaching a destination that isn't worth the trip. Visually, yes, I'm sure some folks will freak out at the ghosts with mirrored eyeballs--but that crowd won't include those of us who survived the Phantasm sequels. Perhaps because we've finally made it out of the found-footage horror boom (I think), audiences and critics are losing their minds over any movie that boasts steadicams and a score. But movies like Oculus and The Conjuring, as retro-minded as they might be, are mediocre at best; at worst, they're poor reflections of a genre that succeeds only when playing it safe is out of the question.

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