The latest addition to the haunted house genre, Oculus, downsizes the haunting to an antique mirror and the malevolent forces that reside within it. Recently released from a mental institution for murdering his father, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) returns home to find his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) still dealing with the tragic circumstances of that night and the events surrounding it. After years of therapy, Tim, has convinced himself that both their mothers murder at the hands of their father and his murder of his father in defense of his sister, were not in fact motivated by supernatural forces. Needless to say, he is is less than happy to be reminded by Kaylie about the promise they made each other that night to find the mirror and destroy both it and the evil that lies within it. Having tracked down the mirror and meticulously planned a weekend of documenting the haunting and destroying it, Kaylie draws Tim back into the web of his own confused memories. Were Tim’s therapists right? Was the siblings story about the malevolent and lecherous nature of the mirror feeding upon their parents a fantasy created by two frightened young children who witnessed a catastrophic event or is Kaylie’s zealous belief that the mirror and the demonic entity housed within it destroyed their family, closer to the truth?
There is one fundamental problem with Oculus. It isn’t scary. Sure it has its moments, almost all of which come within the last half hour of the film, but the overall effect is not scary. It wants to be a haunting movie in the same vein as Insidious or The Conjuring, but it is fundamentally lacking the compositional strategies that make those films as good as they are. Utilizing the “less is more” approach, as those films do, is only one part of the strategy. Oculus lacks any type of well-developed sound and scoring strategy and is extremely flat sonically. Well-developed sonic landscapes are integral in building tension, anxiety, and ultimately fear in horror, especially when those are not being depicted visually for most of the film. When that soundscape is lacking, instead of building up moments of tension, the only thing built up is boredom. In fact, the film seemed to get more unintentional laughs out of the audience than actual scares by the time the narrative was resolved.
Not at all helping Oculus’ inability to produce scares is the deplorably slow pace at which it moves. The story unfolds in a manner that collapses the temporal spaces of the present and the events that Kaylie and Tim witnessed ten years earlier. We move back and forth between these spaces witnessing them as adults trying to destroy the mirror, and them as children dealing with the events of that befell their family. While it is an interesting compositional strategy as a concept, its application only serves to make the film seem long and slow. Similar scenes are shown in the present and then repeated in the past. While I understand the idea, does anyone really want to watch a scene play out with two adults, and then watch almost the same thing happen with two children? The effect that it produces makes it seem like the film is constantly being rewound and replayed, and that is very tedious to sit through. Oculus wants to be a movie about a haunting, psychology, and fear but in the end it fails to really become any of those things and while I love a good haunting movie as much as the next horror fan, maybe scary mirror movies just aren’t my thing.