This haunted house movie doesn’t suck balls

Horror clichés & solid filmmaking do battle in director Mike Flanagan’s new flick, Oculus, starring Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan.


I’ve spoken before of my distaste for haunted house/ghost story movies, especially the low-budget ones trotted out on general release by studios a half-a-dozen times a year. They all follow the same general template: fading movie star/rising TV star lead, blue-grey palette and an insistence that dirty nightgowns, radio static and camcorders are inherently creepy. Oculus seemed to me to be part of that never-ending wave, a junky vehicle for Doctor Who star Karen Gillan that would fall by the wayside in a month. While I can’t really see Oculus surviving through the ages, it does exceed the white-eyeballs-n-dirty-hair standards of the genre… a little bit.

oculus posterEleven years after a tragedy that left both of her parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) dead, Kaylie Russell (Gillan, overdoing the paranoid heroine thing a little) bails her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) out of the mental hospital where he was kept. Tim, you see, was held accountable for the shooting death of his own father; years of therapy have helped Tim work through his problems, but Kaylie has another idea. She thinks that a haunted antique mirror that hung in her father’s office is actually responsible for possessing and killing her parents. Her job as an antiques dealer has allowed her to track down the mirror and, with Tim as her unwilling accomplice, she attempts to capture the mirror’s ghoulish acts on film.

Oculus wouldn’t have had to work very hard to be a better haunted-mirror movie than the genre’s previous outing, Alexandre Aja’s wretched Mirrors, but thankfully director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) has more in mind than just jump scares. Flanagan plays on the eerie, surreal nature of a household under emotional duress as the stuff of tangible horror: the long silences, unexplained parental absences and terse dinner conversations become the stuff of queasy horror paired with the film’s more overtly horrific motifs. It may be the silly haunted mirror that makes the parents act like that, but without the mirror it sure looks like the disintegration of a marriage. There’s a sense (for a while, at least) that Flanagan is fashioning a haunted-house movie out of the story of a loving family breaking apart, and those aspects give Oculus its best moments.

oculus2Unfortunately, Oculus can’t get away with leaving out the government-mandated whispering lady-ghosts in torn frilly dresses that disappear when you blink. The other half of Oculus shoehorns in so much of the overplayed ghost crap that it pretty quickly chips away at the goodwill obtained previously. Scary, inexplicable things happening on monitors are another worn-out, unwelcome motif that rears its ugly head throughout Oculus, but at least this leads to a memorably disgusting scene of someone chomping on a light bulb. The ghosts are a frankly unnecessary addition that almost seems to have been thrown in so the trailers didn’t mostly focus on parents choking their children and people bleeding out of their mouths.

At its best, Oculus resembles something like Cronenberg’s The Brood, using patently ridiculous conceits (a haunted mirror here, mutated children in neon snowsuits in Cronenberg’s film) to dig for a nerve and expose it. At its worst, though, it’s no better than any knockoff of The Ring that’s come out in the last 12 years, full of mewling ghosts and jump scares and rumbling tape decay on the soundtrack. Being half-good already gives Oculus a sizeable advantage over the average mainstream horror release, but half-good is half-bad when you’re standing on the other side. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter

Oculus opens today