These days, with precious few exceptions, it seems that "originality" and "horror" have become mutually exclusive terms. And while some could argue that new ideas don't exactly flourish in a genre in which most viewers simply want a good old-fashioned scare, director Mike Flanagan and his screenwriting partner Jeff Howard prove that breathing new life into old ideas is no simple task, either, in Oculus: This supernatural spellbinder succeeds at disorienting the viewer with a cleverly structured screenplay, but it never quite manages to frighten despite some solid tension and eerie imagery.
Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) were only teenagers when their mother was tortured and murdered and their father was shot to death. Convicted of the killings and sentenced to protective custody, Tim serves his time while Kaylie searches tirelessly for the Lasser Glass -- a mysterious antique mirror she believes drove their father to madness. Years later, a newly free Tim is determined to lay the past to rest. But Kaylie is certain that her brother was innocent all along, and that by destroying the Lasser Glass, she can break its diabolical spell. Upon locating the long-lost mirror, Kaylie's deepest fears are confirmed -- a menacing force inhabits the object, and it has plagued every owner who came into possession of it. Now, after reacquiring the mirror, Kaylie calls on her brother to uphold the childhood promise he made to destroy it when the time was right. But the Lasser Glass is ready for them, and it won't be broken without a fight.
When it comes to horror, stories of cursed items and family tragedies are as common as the cat in the cupboard. One needn't dig any deeper than the glut of Amityville sequels for proof of that. And in the right hands, even a familiar story, like the one recently seen in The Conjuring, can keep moviegoers hopping in their seats. For all of the shouting that takes place in the first half of Oculus, one might be tempted to dub it "The Bickering" while the drama is loudly doled out by undercooked characters (note to screenwriters: nail biting is more a bad habit than a character trait). But as the plot deepens and the action alternates more frequently between the past and the present, Flanagan and Howard begin to reveal their true talents.
Unfortunately, those talents don't lie in their ability to frighten us so much as their skill at inventively merging two fairly pedestrian ghost stories. It's their adeptness at weaving the past and present into a single thread that distinguishes Oculus from the plethora of by-the-numbers haunted-house thrillers, since their fumbling attempts at creating any level of psychological duplicity are an abject failure (and one of the film's most glaring shortcomings). Given what we witness in the opening scenes, there's never any question regarding the origins of the family's nightmare; as a result, the repeated attempts to hint that all of this may simply be in Kaylie's head do little but waste time.
For that reason, nobody would blame you for feeling like you've wasted yours when the film reaches its final act. But should you give up just then, you'll be missing most of the fun as the Lasser Glass subjects its would-be destroyers to a series of psychologically destructive mind games. Here, like a mirror, the scenes set in the present begin to reflect the scenes from the past, with Flanagan and Howard plunging us headlong into a world of malevolent mischief where -- as suggested in the picture's tagline -- we can never be quite certain that what we're witnessing is the truth. A few of the tricks presented in this section of the movie are indeed clever (and competently executed), but by then, Oculus already feels like an effective short film that's been compromised by the desire to make it a feature, robbing the original story of most of its mystery and power.