Haunted Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: ‘Oculus’  Film Review

April 14, 2014

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Karen Gillan and Rory Cochrane

There is a long history of folklore and legends about magical mirrors, ranging from the Bloody Mary urban legends to the sycophantic mirror in Snow White to the centuries-old practice of covering mirrors in the room of a dying person lest either Death or the Devil be seen in them.

The new horror film Oculus is about just such a mirror; here's the plot according to the studio that released it: "Ten years ago, tragedy struck the Russell family, leaving the lives of teenage siblings Tim and Kaylie forever changed when Tim was convicted of the brutal murder of their parents. Now in his twenties, Tim is newly released from protective custody and only wants to move on with his life; but Kaylie, still haunted by that fateful night, is convinced her parents' deaths were caused by something else altogether: a malevolent supernatural force unleashed through the Lasser Glass, an antique mirror in their childhood home. Determined to prove Tim's innocence, Kaylie tracks down the mirror, only to learn similar deaths have befallen previous owners over the past century." Kaylie is determined to somehow "prove" that the mirror is evil, returning it to the house their parents died in, and setting it up with audio and video recording equipment.

Kaylie spends about five minutes in a seemingly exhaustive recitation of the various ghastly fates that have befallen a dozen or so previous owners over the decades, though if the mirror is as dangerous and cursed as it is said to be, it's curious that anyone is still around to buy or sell it. It also made me curious to know what, exactly the details of the curse were: does it only affect the owners, or anyone who lives in the same house or building? What if ten people each paid equally to buy the mirror? Would each of them get one-tenth of the curse?

The premise opens up all sorts of interesting ideas and questions. If a cursed mirror or another object could be scientifically proven to induce a state of delusion or temporary homicidal insanity in people, perhaps that could be used as a successful criminal defense. In fact, that's part of how the Amityville Horror story got started: a young man named Butch DeFeo killed his family in the house, and his lawyer tried (unsuccessfully) to claim that demons or ghosts drove him to kill. DeFeo was sent to prison, but the family that bought the home next decided to create a ghost story around the house, with the help of horror novelist Jay Anson, who cynically marketed it as a true story. It also has interesting implications for free will-though I'm probably overthinking this.

Tim plays the skeptic in this duo, trying to convince his sister that she's imagining the curse. And, to give writer/director Mike Flanagan credit, he makes some very good, genuinely skeptical objections to Kaylie's claims (about, for example, confirmation bias and false memories). Part of the intrigue of a film like this is that we don't know whether Kaylie is actually crazy or not. There are many psychological horror films that effectively play with this unreliable narrator device-see, for example, The Uninvited (2009), or Frailty (2001), or Jacob's Ladder (1990). But Oculus is robbed of that tantalizing element of interest because the audience (based on the trailers, reviews, and movie poster) knows that it's a supernatural horror film (from the producers of Paranormal Activity, no less) and that the ghosts and evil spirits are real in the film. Thus the early scenes of Tim arguing with his sister about whether the mirror is truly cursed or not is rather perfunctory: we know it is, so there's not much point in trying to make a case otherwise.

Kaylie is obsessed with somehow documenting the haunted mirror's effects. When the lights go out in the house, Kaylie knowingly tells Tim she expected that (though it's not clear why she would have expected it, since she'd had no experience with the mirror or its abilities, and hadn't even seen it for a decade), and suggests that the curse or ghost interferes with electricity. Kaylie then opens a waiting case of camping lanterns and flashlights to continue her experiment, apparently unaware that they, too, run on electricity. It seems that the ancient, supernatural evil is powerful enough to kill plants and small animals (and drive people to homicide) but has no power over small batteries. Good to know.

Kaylie tries to "scientifically" test whether or not the mirror is actually haunted (or cursed, it's not clear), and she's so cocksure of herself and her protocols that she convinces Tim (and, by extension, presumably the audience) that she's thought it all through, using everything from kitchen timers to video cameras. I've designed protocols to scientifically evaluate paranormal claims such as those presented in Oculus, and it's all pretty absurd. The fact is that Kaylie actually is crazy-despite the fact that the mirror is indeed supernaturally evil, as she claims. Her "scientific" protocols make no sense: it's a half-baked "ghost investigation" inspired by someone who's seen too many episodes of the Ghost Hunters TV show, now in the ninth season of its futile, evidence-free search for spirits.

It doesn't give much away to state that the mirror has the ability to induce hallucinations (or perhaps alter reality, it's not clear which), and that at some point both Kaylie and Tim begin experiencing things that, sooner or later, we find out did not happen. This works well once or twice but becomes tiresome and confusing after a while, since the audience gets tired of being tricked into investing interest in a narrative that we soon find out wasn't real. This can be effective if done well (Memento and The Usual Suspects, for example), but this is-it-real-or-isn't-it bouncing around doesn't really work in Oculus.

Despite an intriguing premise, Oculus loses its way in the scattered third act; by the time the period-dressed, Disneylike ghosts of people killed by the mirror appear, it's all rather messy. The film fails to really build tension, partly because by the halfway point the screenplay is trying to juggle three related but distinct story narratives: the present-day action; the present-day action that's hallucinated; and the flashbacks to their childhood. The switching back and forth between the three was perhaps supposed to keep the audience unsettled, but instead it pulls us in and out of the story as we're constantly trying to figure out what's happening.

Oculus is derivative of other, better horror films and many of its elements were clearly inspired by The Shining (for example there's an "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" scene). There are plenty of horror film clichés, ranging from squeaking doors to scary characters who are first seen with their backs to the camera and who turn around very slowly to reveal themselves to our frightened hero.

Oculus is not a bad horror film, as far as it goes, and it's better than either the Paranormal Activity films or Insidious. Oculus was originally created as a short film, and the limitations of the source material becomes obvious. It's an interesting premise for a short film, but is stretched thin at an hour and 45 minutes (thankfully we are spared the shaky handheld camera footage that taints many of these films). It's a noble effort with decent performances and a few scares.