As I learned very early on in my life, the way the horror genre works is that one mega-successful movie begets 1,001 that are just like it. The same way that George Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies paved the way for endless copycats, Friday the 13th kick-started the 80s slasher craze and Saw ushered in the era of ‘torture porn,’ Paranormal Activity sparked a big time resurgence in ghost stories, which have been dominating the box office ever since the film’s widespread release in 2009.
The company that produced Paranormal Activity, Blumhouse Productions, has unsurprisingly been at the forefront of the movement, to the point that very few horror movies seem to make it into theaters, without the Blumhouse name attached to them. A list of their recent films reads like a recap of the last few years of theatrical horror releases, which includes Sinister, The Purge, Lords of Salem, Insidious: Chapter 2 and, of course, the many Paranormal Activity sequels.
Simply put, Blumhouse has taken over the horror genre, and the company is absolutely dominating its theatrical landscape. Hell, even non-Blumhouse releases, films like The Conjuring and Devil’s Due, are very much cut from the Blumhouse cloth – in other words, I had to look them up on Wikipedia, because I wasn’t even sure if they were produced by Blumhouse or not.
Though I am a fan of many of the films I’ve listed thus far, I must admit that I’ve grown kind of tired of the whole paranormal/supernatural craze. Like all horror genre fads, this one has more than worn out its welcome, and it’s gotten to the point where every theatrical horror release has blended together, due to the fact that they’re all so similar. Each new one feels like an indirect continuation of the last, and I quite frankly miss the days of going to see horror movies on the big screen that don’t have to do with ghosts and supernatural entities.
It’s kind of enough already, isn’t it?
That brings us to Oculus; a supernatural horror movie, brought to us by… you guessed it… Blumhouse Productions!
Directed by Mike Flanagan – who became somewhat of an indie darling with 2011’s Absentia – Oculus centers on siblings Tim and Kaylie, who didn’t exactly have the greatest childhood. When they were kids, a creepy old mirror in their childhood home wreaked absolute havoc on their lives, forcing their father to brutally murder their mother. Young Tim managed to get a hold of his dad’s gun and end the madness before he and his sister became the next victims, and he spent the rest of his childhood in a mental institution as a result.
At the start of the film, Tim is released back into the world and he reunites with Kaylie, who is hellbent on not only proving that the mirror was to blame for their father’s Jack Torrance-inspired rampage, but also on killing the mirror once and for all. While Tim was being reprogrammed with years of therapy, you see, Kaylie was investigating the history of the mirror, and she’s 100% sure that it’s the most evil inanimate object in the world.
Oculus shifts between events of the past and the present, showing us what exactly happened during Tim and Kaylie’s childhood, while also documenting their present day battle with the supernatural force that resides in the haunted mirror.
Due to the split timeline, Oculus essentially plays out like two different films rolled into one, and it almost feels like you’re watching Oculus: Part 1 and Oculus: Part 2, at the very same time. The problem is, neither side of that coin is interesting in the least, with the flashbacks playing out like Paranormal Possession 101 and the present day sequences making you wish that the present day sequences weren’t even a part of the film.
The best way I can describe it is that Oculus is a sort of weird hybrid between a silly episode of the Goosebumps TV series and a serious horror movie, and since it takes itself way too seriously to ever be fun and is far too goofy to ever be taken seriously, the mixture of tones – whether intended or not – just doesn’t work. It’s not fun and it’s certainly not scary, which results it in just plain being dull, uninspired and downright boring.
Worst of all though, Oculus is a wholly unoriginal effort, with the haunted mirror and fractured timeline both being used as gimmicks to tell what is ultimately a story that we’ve already been told a million times before. There’s literally not a single shred of an original idea on display here, and unless you’ve never before seen a movie driven by things like paranormal possession, CG-enhanced ghosts and jump scares fit for teenage consumption, then there’s really nothing to see here that you haven’t seen before.
I always try to find positive things to say about movies I didn’t care for, and the best thing I can say about Oculus is that it briefly flirts with the idea of presenting interesting ideas, on a couple of occasions. At one point in the film, the validity of childhood recollections is called into question, and at another, the idea of how two different people can deal with the same situation in far different ways is touched upon. Again though, both ideas are only briefly explored, as the name of the game here is making teenage girls scream, above all else.
As far as the narrative structure is concerned, which eventually results in the two main characters essentially interacting with their childhood selves, even that idea is never all that interesting, and its overplayed to the point of actually being pretty damn annoying. On top of that, it never seems to actually serve the story in any way, coming off like a gimmick that was intended to make audiences think the movie is smarter than it actually is. Phenomenally stupid, is what it truly is.
And don’t even get me started on the character of Kaylie, who is one of the most irritating in the genre’s recent past. I’m not going to say Karen Gillan is a bad actress, but her matter-of-fact line delivery and way of acting in this film absolutely irritated the living hell out of me, and as a result there was absolutely no chance of me being emotionally invested in her plight. Not to mention her plan to document and destroy the evil mirror doesn’t really make sense, if you actually think about it, but that’s a whole nother paragraph that I don’t feel the need to write.
Though it’s a mirror that’s haunted, rather than a house, and though the jumps back and forth in time give the film somewhat of a unique presentation, Oculus is at the end of the day just another movie that paints by the paranormal numbers, and stays so far inside the lines of predictability that the journey to its incredibly expected destination isn’t fun, scary, surprising or even entertaining. What’s the point of such safe storytelling, you ask? Well, I guess it makes money, and I guess that’s all that matters.
With Oculus, Mike Flanagan has proven something that most of us were already quite aware of, going into it; mirrors just aren’t scary, nor do they make for good villains in horror flicks. It’s yet another reminder that theatrical horror has become the Buzzfeed of cinema; quick, dumbed-down and made with mass consumption in mind.
Random Final Thoughts:
– Yes, Tim and Kaylie’s possessed father is indeed played by the same actor who played the pot-smoking Ron Slater in Dazed and Confused.
– As if there weren’t enough Apple products on display in the film, a memorable scene features both main characters eating… apples. Clever product placement, I must admit.
– Despite the fact that WWE Studios was involved with the movie, there are no wrestlers in it. Sad face.
– Amityville 1992: It’s About Time did a much better job with the idea of a haunted object distorting time and reality inside of a home. Go figure.