I had high hopes of Oculus. Andrés Muschietti’s Mama was one of my favorite horror films the year it was released. I thought that film was truly scary, especially the scenes with the feral kids moving unnaturally through the cabin. The basic story has potential, but sadly, the film isn’t what I had hoped.
When they were children, Kaylie and Tim Russell survived a terrible experience which left both their mother and father dead, the latter at the hands of 10 year-old Tim. Tim ends up in a home for the mentally ill and his sister is put into the foster care system. Oculus takes place eleven years later as Tim is released from the hospital and his sister lures him back to their family home to confront the evil that killed their parents (an evil that resides, as the title would suggest, in an antique mirror that appears to absorb the souls of those it kills).
It is a decent set up rife with opportunities for eerie moments and pedestrian jump scares. Unfortunately, Muschietti’s film doesn’t deliver either in any measure. The creepiness is minimized by the poorly designed “ghosts” which just look too much like those we’ve seen in dozens of other films. The jump scares are so telegraphed that I can’t imagine many people would be caught off guard by them.
The key conceit in the filmmaking is the parallel editing of the events of the past and the present. We learn what happened in the past at the same time we are watching the current events play out. I can see what the director and editor were going for, but instead of feeling me with mystery and fear, each time they use sleight-of-hand editing to make me unsure which era I was in any sense of dread that had built up simply vaporized. By the time the final events unfolded, I was completely emotionally divorced from the proceedings.
It isn’t all bad. Karen Gillan turns in a believable performance as the adult Kaylie, and Benton Thwaites is even better as her brother. The two children playing the characters in flashback are even better than the adult leads. Additionally, the film is well shot, for the most part, and though it is far from the feast for the eyes that Mama was, the mise-en-scene in general is well done. My main problem, in the end, is that I didn’t care what happened to the adult versions of these characters, especially Kaylie, who seems oblivious to the effect her efforts are having on her younger brother.