By Hashim Hathaway
[*Warning: Spoilers below for the film!]
Karen Gillan is going to be a star.
Unfortunately, you're going to have to wait until the release of Guardians of the Galaxy later this summer to see the former Doctor Who companion truly shine. It's a shame her first American film, WWE Studio's Oculus, comes up woefully short as the Scottish actress' coming out party.
Not even this half-baked and ultimately ruined concept can keep viewers from wanting to like Gillan as headstrong and determined Kaylie Russell, who tries to set right a horrible incident that tore her family apart. The film opens with the release of her brother, Tim — portrayed by Australian newcomer Brenton Thwaites (who will have his big budget debut later this year in Angelina Jolie's Malficent)—as he is released from a mental institution to a waiting Kaylie.
Ten years ago, the siblings witnessed the death of their parents (a tragically wasted Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), which we soon learn the death of the father was at the hands of a young Tim, who, through therapy seems to have blocked out many of the sinister memories of that fateful evening, something Kaylie remembers all too vividly. In Tim's absence, Kaylie tried to move on with her life, becoming engaged to antiquities dealer Michael (James Lafferty), but all the while becoming more and more convinced that her parents' death was due to an evil entity possessing an antique mirror. The mirror itself has become an obsession for Kaylie, who's been tracing it from owner to owner, where she's able to catch it as it's auctioned through her fiancée's firm.
Kaylie's plan is simple enough: Take the mirror back to the home her parents died in and try to coax out the entity so that she may kill it once and for all. To do this, she tries to get the help of a very unwilling Tim, who'd rather put the entire ordeal behind him, with the hope that she would do the same. Because this is a horror movie, of course there's no earthly way that's going to happen.
Once Kaylie and Tim get to the house, she walks Tim (and the audience) through her plan to draw the spirit out and hopefully destroy it. It's here where director Mike Flanagan and screenwriter Jeff Howard makes an honest attempt to take yet another ghost story and make it into something compelling and very watchable.
I enjoyed the seemingly seamless flashbacks mixed with current events, as this has the viewer walking along side both the brother and sister as they question everything they see, as past and present begin to melt together until neither know what's real and what's memory. Ultimately, the thing I loved about the movie was the very thing that in the end frustrated me.
Because of the way in which the flashbacks are unfolded as memories, the viewer never really gets to know the parents, only what's happening to them and how it's affecting the younger Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan). We're never given a chance to care about the family, so their gradual possession holds no real gravity and everything that comes after is delivered as matter-of-fact, with the viewer only being rewarded with the occasional jump-scare.
Also, the main conceit of the film, the idea that the entity in the mirror can fool its victim to the point where they lose complete track of time is almost completely stolen from Doctor Who villains the Silence. Seeing that, having Gillan as the protagonist almost makes you want to have her call out for the Doctor, who'd come and wave his Sonic at the mirror and we'd move on to the next episode.
Sadly, that's another, better franchise.
It seems that the writer was so drawn into his own concept here that he forgot to tack on an ending, so just as the tension takes viewers to a point where Oculus could become that rare spookhouse film that transcends the trappings of its genre, the rug is pulled out from under the viewer with a "shock" ending that was clearly telegraphed throughout the film, making it not that shocking after all, just dumb.
On a personal level, I'm getting pretty sick of horror movies that opt to have no real shot at hope for any of it's characters. Some of the best horror movies and ghost stories give the viewer something to cheer for. Even with the open theft from Doctor Who, Oculus is a film that had a real chance at becoming worthwhile, with a character in Kaylie Russell who's absolutely worth cheering for, but instead gives viewers a mirror image of a movie that when viewed through the looking glass is nothing less than awful.