The first chapter in a would-be horror “franchise” Oculus has a good basic conceit and is made with skill and smarts. But it doesn’t have a lot of scares, and there’s a void where its nerve center ought to be. Overexplaining the source of evil (i.e., that old Indian graveyard) has its own pitfalls, but even the most irrational demon needs a bit of context — psychological, cultural, historical. The bad mirror at the heart of Oculus doesn’t have any particular resonance. It just sits there, as mirrors will do.
The movie unfolds in two time different periods. In the present, twentysomething Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) picks up her brother, Tim (Brendan Thwaites), at a mental hospital where he’s been shut away for more than a decade, and announces she plans to avenge their parents’ death. In the past, we learn how the parents met their fates and young Tim became the scapegoat. The director, Mike Flanagan, shifts back and forth between story lines, building to twin bloodbaths in the same house, the same room. Scene by scene, the film is rich in emotion, but Flanagan takes his time going nowhere we can’t guess.
There are fine set pieces. Kaylie’s scheme involves both destroying the life-size mirror and documenting its supernatural power. This entails setting up multiple cameras, along with heat sensors and, in a novel touch, potted plants. (The mirror is said to make them droop.) It’s always fun in horror movies when earnest people employ high-tech scientific instruments to scrutinize old-fashioned ghouls, and the sense of anticipation as Flanagan cuts among the video vantages and nothing happens makes you nervous about what’s coming. But Gillan — a leggy Scottish redhead who played Matt Smith’s companion on a couple of seasons of Dr. Who — has little to do but look pissed-off and determined while Thwaites’s Tim tells her over and over she’s delusional. And given how easy it is nowadays to manipulate video images to make you think you’re seeing something that isn’t there, the mirror’s powers don’t seem especially mind-blowing. iMovie can do it even better.
The scenes in the past have more Evil Dead-esque oomph. The kids’ mom is another familiar genre face — Katee Sackhoff, magnetic as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica — and her transformation under the mirror’s gaze from a loving parent to a demon that wants to cut her own offspring to shreds is both terrifying and heartbreaking. Sackhoff is enough of an actress to give you hints of the horrified mother under the twisty, mottled mask, and Annalise Basso as young Kaylie plays her emotional schism (want to run from Mommy, want to hug Mommy) very affectingly. The gory climax hits a tragic note; it’s Grand Guignol grand opera.
What’s missing? A sense of the ineffable. Working with much lamer material, James Wan in The Conjuring created an overpowering sense of visual menace. Over the years, Wan has learned just where to put the camera to suggest what’s missing in the frame, and what our minds fill in is infinitely more frightening than any whey-faced goon. One reason Oculus feels so talky and monotonous in spite of its tricky syntax is that the space itself isn’t charged with malignancy. And the monster doesn’t compensate — it’s dumb, blockish, inert. The mirror doesn’t have two faces. It barely has one.