Revisting a haunted past in Oculus

by Mark Burger

Sifting through a haunted house’s history while actually staying in the haunted house is not a healthy idea, as any horror fan will tell you. Yet that’s the premise of Oculus, a feature expansion of director/co-screenwriter Mike Flanagan’s 2006 short film

Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan.

The story focuses on Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), siblings newly reunited when Tim is released from a mental institution for killing their father 10 years before. Kaylie is absolutely certain that the house where the incident – and other incidents – took place is haunted, and drags Tim back there to further delve into their family’s tragic past.

This is, unquestionably, a recipe for further disaster. But that’s how movies like this operate.

Oculus is heavy on flashbacks — with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan playing the young Kaylie and Tim, and Rory

Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff as their unfortunate parents — and heavy on scenes involving mirrors (hence the title “¦ to some extent). The symbolism is hardly subtle, but the film does boast a foreboding mood and does have its spooky moments along the way.

The film dangles pieces of its narrative puzzle, stringing the audience along with the promise of an eye-popping pay-off (the kind M. Night Shyamalan used to do well – long ago), with the flashbacks meant to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Nor does it work.

Flanagan coaxes above-average performances from the small cast, particularly from Gillan, whose Kaylie is so blinded by her obsession that she fails to recognize the danger she’s put Tim and herself in, and from Cochrane, truly chilling as an all- American father who steadily descends into madness. Miguel Sandoval is wasted in a one-scene cameo as Tim’s shrink.

Trying to second-guess the plot trajectory isn’t always rewarding, although the filmmakers do make an honest attempt to broaden the film’s focus of fear. In the end, Oculus isn’t successful, but at least it tries, at least the title’s cool, and at least it’s not a “found-footage” shocker. That earns it a few points.