Supernatural horror films have experiencedÂ a prolific resurgence recentlyÂ with such popular titles as “Paranormal Activity,” “Sinister” and “Insidious.” As with any category of film there comes a set of clichÃ©s that defines it, so it’s welcome when a horror film tries to branch out on its own and break the mold. Unfortunately,Â “Oculus,” makes passes at something fresh and comes up short in the process.
10 years after a traumatic event sent Tim Russell into psychotherapy, he has recovered onÂ as a young adult andÂ released into the care of his sister, Kaylie. Tim hasÂ repressed the belief that supernatural forcesÂ caused the tragedy, but KaylieÂ refuses to believe otherwise and obtains theÂ ominous mirror that she thinksÂ is the source of their trouble. As the siblings set up recording equipment to prove what no one else believes, the mirror awakens to twist reality to its will.
At the same time, “Oculus” shifts between these events of the presentÂ withÂ the past where the RussellsÂ was torn apart by the mirror’s omnipotent force. In spite of the present day scenes being theÂ story’s framework, the stuff in the past is where “Oculus” finds its most compelling material. The actors cast in the film can be attributed to this, and while Karen Gillen (old Kaylie) “Doctor Who” fame is given top billing, sheÂ and Brenton Thwaites (old Tim) are overshadowed by their younger acting counterparts.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan, adapting his own short film, would have been better off sticking to the story of young Tim and Kaylie experiencing the deterioration of their family. Instead, he creates an awkward parallel structure that both withholds information simply for the sake of forcing a sense of mystery and yet explains too much.Â When Kaylie drops a load of exposition explaining everything, it robs the past story of its unpredictability.
Another question of execution comes with the portrayal of the mirror’s supernatural grip. The film is strongerÂ when its atmosphere suggestsÂ anything can happen andÂ “reality” is unreliable. When Flanagan toys with the audience and keeps things low-key,Â the psychological ambiguity he builds up showcases the films potential. When he turns toÂ familiarÂ ghost frights, it dilutes the ingenuity of the premise.
The more frightful material comes from the strange behavior of young Kaylie and Tim’s parents. Their descents into madnessÂ would have been aÂ storyline strong enough on its own. The film almost seems to self-consciously recognize this as the plotline in the presentÂ starts becomingÂ more and more like an obligatory footnote.Â There’s a compellingly chilling story that can be found within “Oculus,” but it is buried in a shroud of cleverness that hindersÂ rather than enhances the film.