Horror movies aren’t known for their original ideas, so it’s refreshing when one comes along that actually manages to try something new. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, based on his previous short film, Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, feels like a fresh experience with some unique scares, setups and storytelling techniques. Its execution may be sloppy, especially in the final act, but this can be overlooked because everything that precedes it is nicely done. This isn’t a film that relies on constant thrills and scares; Flanagan and his cowriter Jeff Howard are much more concerned with placing the viewer into a unique situation, establishing ground rules and then throwing the rulebook out the door. It’s difficult to pinpoint where the movie will ultimately end up and that’s high praise in the horror genre.

Eleven years ago, siblings Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) watched their father (Rory Cochrane) violently murder their mother (Katee Sackhoff). Tim saved their lives by shooting his father and was placed in a mental health facility as a result. Now an adult, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has finally been released from the facility and reunites with his sister (Karen Gillan). Kaylie reminds Tim that they made a promise to destroy the cause of all their pain so many years ago: a centuries old mirror that seems to contain some kind of supernatural power. They set themselves up in their childhood home, placing cameras on the mirror, hoping to record some type of activity. Tim is initially skeptical, believing that all his memories regarding the mirror were in his head. But, by the end of the night, some credence may be given towards the true power of this strange artifact.

It’s an interesting take on the haunted house genre and, while a haunted object isn’t necessarily breaking new ground, the topic of a haunted mirror is something not seen very often in horror movies. The investigation into the mirror that these two characters attempt is another nice element and it keeps the film upbeat and a lot of fun. In fact, some of the best scenes and most original scares stem directly from their intense surveillance of the mirror. One scene has the two characters leave the room, only to return and discover that all of the cameras have been moved. It’s one of the most clever scares in the entire film and the explanation of how it happened is just as interesting.

Present day scenes are intercut with the timeline from eleven years ago, creating a film that tells two different, but still connected stories. As each of these tales move toward their climax, things begin to get overly complicated and it’s often difficult to determine whether we’re in the past or the present. No doubt this was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, hoping to disorient the audience in a similar way to the characters, but it’s quite distracting and removes a lot of the tension from the finale. Another problem that arises towards the end of the film is Kaylie and Tim’s plan to destroy the mirror. They set up a pendulum-like device that will swing down and destroy the mirror if they don’t reset a timer every 30 minutes. But this begs the question: why set up the timer at all? Why not let the pendulum destroy the mirror to begin with? You could argue that the mirror would find a way to prevent it, but that doesn’t explain why the characters suddenly think that destroying it will be possible at the end of the film. It’s a pretty big distraction in a final 20 minutes that’s stylish but often hard to follow.

As is the case with a lot of horror movies, the lead performances aren’t great. Gillan and Thwaites don’t do much with their characters and their delivery of some already questionable dialogue only makes it worse. Gillan’s character is generally unlikable, while Thwaites seems uninterested in the material. It’s hard to care about them, so it’s a good thing that the material is interesting enough to overlook this. Surprisingly, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who portray the younger versions of Kaylie and Tim, give stronger performances than their older costars. They’re easy to relate to and we can feel the pain and distress that they’re experiencing.

Studios initially wanted to film Oculus in the found footage genre, but Flanagan was against this idea and refused. With the found footage genre becoming more and more gimmicky and tired, this was a smart choice. Flanagan makes a lot of smart choices in his feature length directorial debut, enough to overlook the film’s obvious flaws. Despite some unique scares and spooky imagery, it’s unlikely to scare you away from your bathroom mirror, but that’s only because it’s a lot more fun than it is scary.

Oculus receives 2.5/4

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