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In one gruesomely effective scene deep in Oculus, the new horror movie starring an eerie mirror, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), the movie’s young lead heroine, bites off what she thinks is an apple. Only, the sound of the crunch, which we hear before we see, is different from a fruit’s. It is the fused bulb she took to replace out mere moments ago.

This scene gives director Mike Flanagan an effective opportunity to present a type of trepidation that should have been Oculus’ birthright, as Kaylie, agape in the literal sense, takes out shards of glass from her mouth, confused and in pain, on how she messed up. Or did she?

These mind bending confusions in Oculus come courtesy of a piece of carpentry: a wall-mounted antique mirror with a macabre wooden frame called the “Lasser Glass” – and it has a killer history. The looking glass dates back four centuries and may have killed forty-five previous owners.

A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo
A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo

Apart from finite archives of its owner’s deaths, the screenplay, based on the director’s 2005 short film, offers scant information on the dread that lives in the mirror; except, that it psychologically unravels the owner’s sense of space, time and paranoia.

I guess the tagline does a good enough job of summarizing Oculus’ main theme: “You see what it wants you to see”, it reads.

The plot

Released from psychiatric care eleven years after his parents died under strange circumstances, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and his sister Kaylie spend the night with the mirror that may have turned their parents into violent monsters. Kaylie, insistent on ascertaining the mirror’s malevolent nature, sets up modern day electronics to document the night. Soon the two face events from their own past – sometimes in the same room, transformed in their younger selves (played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) – as we learn about the evil in the mirror.

The science of “commercial” horror

One of the key aspects a horror movie is expected to exploit is a creeping sense of unrest and shrouded backstory of the dread. Limited as these particulars can be, there has to be a definitive explanation of the supernatural. A clarification delivers a sense of emotional relief; a closure – especially when there are typewritten characters.

A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo
A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo

As far as horror movies go, especially of late, the paranormal is barely sketched out in hopes of cashing in sequels; in Oculus’ case, this is irritatingly evident.

There are other facts too, like intimidated animals and spooked children. Electronics crash, plants wilt – and because Oculus has a trickster mirror – Kaylie and Tim see things that aren’t really there.

The heart of the aesthetic is in the right place

The people in Oculus are as stationary as the movie’s production design: rarely interesting and barely lit by cinematographer Michael Fimognari – almost as if someone wants to keep them in the dark for the demon’s benefit.

Gillan, and her mother played by Katee Sackhoff, are earnest actors, delivering scenes from bad material.

A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo
A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo

Flanagan (who also edits, and co-screen writes with Jeff Howard) builds the narrative on a new angle – he doesn’t show demons that often – but overstuffs unnecessary complexity with psychological unrest. Every so often, he would displace his actors in their past, sometimes for brief moments, other times through full-scenes, only to interlink narrative tracks in hopes of adding a spin to the genre.

The back-and-forth jumping horribly fails, as does the lucidity of the characters.

A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo
A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo

Thwaites’, a reoccurrence from the Oculus short film where he was the only character, is almost engaging as the nervy younger brother; his presence, on the other hand, doesn’t make much difference to the story, other than adding a family angle.

Kaylie’s urge to document and substantiate her past borders on unflinching paranoia; her preoccupation makes her more of a nutcase than the stationary Lasser Glass.

The parents are botched up jobs of shallow, apparent and derivative personas.

A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo
A scene from movie, "Oculus". – Courtesy Photo

Their dad (Rory Cochrane) is stuck personating a copy of Jack Nicholson’s mania from The Shining. His source of captivation is limited to a gruff demeanor, violent urges and painfully breaking his own nails off from their root.

The mirror, of course makes him do it, just as it gives Sackhoff, the insatiable itch of offing every actor with speaking parts.

The final word

Flanagan take on the story is innovative, regardless of being molded from everything from The Shining to The Amityville Horror and Insidious; Oculus’s one pitfall is enough though – he spends too much time jumbling up the narrative’s past and the present. By the end all Oculus ends up as, is a poor-man’s pretzel designed off of someone else’s more successful recipe.

Distributed by Relativity Media, "Oculus" is rated R for scenes of anxiety and some horror.

Directed by Mike Flanagan; Produced by Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy; Written by Mr. Flanagan, Jeff Howard (Based on Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan by Mr. Flanagan); Cinematography by Michael Fimognari; Editing by Mr. Flanagan with Music by The Newton Brothers.

Starring: Karen Gillan, Annalise Basso, Brenton Thwaites, Garrett Ryan, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Katie Parker and Kate Siegel.