Tired "Oculus" Toes Line Of Languishing Genre

The horror genre has spent the past decade gasping for air, like the dying, endangered species it is, without a bona fide classic since Wes Craven’s “Scream” hit theaters in 1996. That film’s hyper self-aware brand of satire was a fitting death rattle for the genre, but – like a lurching, undead corpse – it refuses to stay down. The occasional gem (see “Insidious”) has been just enough to supplant the parade of offensive remakes (“Friday The 13th,” “Evil Dead”) and the stream of ghastly sequels to modest successes (the “Saw” series). Horror’s red-letter days were remarkable and sustained, beginning in the silent film era, finding a second wind with Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in 1960, and arguably peaking in the 70s with “The Exorcist” and “Halloween.” But those days are well behind us.

No, they “don’t make ‘em like they used to,” but that’s not an observation based solely on nostalgia. Studio horror films used to be events, grabbing hold of the national consciousness and capturing the imaginations of teens and adults from all walks of life. Some of the world’s best filmmakers (Kubrick, Scorsese) used to dabble in the genre and exciting, young voices (Craven, Carpenter) emerged regularly. Today, horror is the narrowest of genres targeting the narrowest of audiences, intent on separating genre fans from their money – and little else.

“Oculus” – a ghost story about an evil mirror with supernatural powers – does nothing to buck that trend. It’s all about the status quo, content to be the cinematic equivalent of a bed sheet with two holes cut out for eyes. It’s functional, but not scary in the least, and – like any cobbled together Halloween costume – liable to disappoint. At least its mirror conceit provides for the kind of creative freedom that most horror filmmakers would kill for. Said mirror can manipulate its surroundings, possess people at will, and, most impressively, provide screenwriters with an endless stream of logical loopholes.

But the pic’s creators make haphazard use of those endless story possibilities, doing little that even the most casual horror fan hasn’t seen before. Karen Gillan stars as Kaylie, a twenty-something antique dealer with a haunted childhood that she can’t shake. 11 years prior, her father (Rory Cochrane) murdered her mother (Katee Sackhoff), leading to an assortment of mental health issues that have only ballooned with age. It’s the only commonality Kaylie has left with her estranged brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who’s just been released from a mental hospital.

But while Tim believes that his father merely snapped, Kaylie is convinced that his office mirror – an antique that she’s linked to numerous grisly happenings – drove him to murder, and she’s set on destroying it. Returning to their childhood home, the siblings arm themselves with camcorders and various glass-smashing tools and hunker down for a long night. As silly as this all sounds, writer-director Mike Flanagan and company fully commit to the story, and a few interesting ideas slip through its cracks. Particularly, a scene featuring an apple and a faulty lightbulb is creatively gory.

But “Oculus” plays like it went straight to DVD in 2005, its over-reliance on technology as a plot device and distractingly bad hair making it feel instantly dated. The film’s micro budget makes its flaws understandable, but they’re still flaws, and its limited scope – most of the narrative unfolds in one location – strips the story of much of its drama. We usually know what’s coming next, and when we don’t, it’s difficult to decipher what’s real and what isn’t because of the supernatural bent of the story. If nothing else, Flanagan’s decision to show the entirety of the family’s haunted past concurrently with the present day gives the third act a certain kick.

It’s hard to make a movie – harder still on a limited budget – but even so, “Oculus” is essentially a high-functioning student film. It’s caught in a vicious cycle of stilted scripting and wooden acting, each component requiring the other to be much better than it is. The haunted childhood narrative could be an interesting metaphor for real world issues, but here it’s essentially a metaphor for itself. There’s very little going on beneath the surface, making for an eminently forgettable horror film – one that’s disappointingly in line with the sad state of the genre.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: April 11, 2014
Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garretty Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval
MPAA Rating: R (for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language)