The late, great movie critic Roger Ebert coined the term “idiot plot” to describe any flick in which the story is set in motion because of its idiotic characters.
The new horror film Oculus is that sort of yarn. It has its share of creepy moments — some of which might just stay with you long after you’ve left the dark of the theater — but first you have to digest some hard-to-swallow notions.
The movie opens with Tim Russell (Brendon Thwaites) being discharged from a mental hospital just shy of his 21st birthday. After years of intensive therapy, the young man is finally ready to move on from the slaughter of 11 years earlier, when his parents were murdered under grisly circumstances.
But older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan, TV’s most recent Doctor Who) doesn’t make his acclimation to society very easy. She has her own ideas about how best to cope with past trauma, enlisting Tim’s help to destroy an antique mirror that she blames for their parents’ deaths.
Yes, a mirror. Kaylie has tracked down the item that had graced their family’s home years earlier. As she explains to Tim in a rapid-fire, darkly funny monologue, the cursed mirror is responsible for at least 45 bloody deaths dating back over four centuries. Tim is skeptical and more than a little freaked out by his big sister’s obsession.
Kaylie wants revenge. She has arranged for the mirror to be secured in their childhood house, now vacant, along with video cameras, laptops, heat sensors and timers. Will Tim help smash the murderous mirror that apparently drove their dead father (Rory Cochrane, Argo) to slaying their mom (Katee Sackhoff, TV’s most recent Battlestar Galactica)?
The mirror, meanwhile, has more illusions up its figurative sleeve than David Blaine. Oculus hopscotches between the present day and the siblings’ ordeal of a decade earlier, when their younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) were trapped in a nightmare while their parents slipped into madness.
Oculus is the brainchild of writer-director Mike Flanagan. And he deserves credit for crafting a horror movie that boasts ambition, wit and (a rarity) restraint. He even manages to wring some pathos from the proceedings. Sackhoff is affecting as the ill-fated mother. Gillan finds traces of humor in Kaylie’s staunch determination.
But Flanagan stumbles in his most fundamental mission. For all its allusions to such effective horror films as The Shining and the Paranormal Activity franchise, Oculus just isn’t that scary; it prompts more chills than jolts.
Part of the problem is the premise itself, even if you accept the conceit that Kaylie would purposely seek out (and do battle with) the murderous mirror. Oculus’ escalation of is-it-real-or-is-it-delusion in the second half is compelling, but it diminishes the stakes. The movie stops abiding by its own rules.