Paranormal thrillers have become so plentiful, and so utterly predictable in their methods, that it’s tempting to celebrate any big-screen ghost story that even modestly strays from formula. The derivative evil-mirror potboiler Oculus doesn’t exactly shatter the clichés of the genre, but it does distort them in a couple of interesting ways, beginning with a creative reversal of the usual vengeful-spirit plot: This time it’s the haunted, not the haunter, who wants a little payback. Eleven years after malevolent forces tore her family apart, Kaylie (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan) has tracked down the cursed, culpable object, a possessed vanity mirror she hopes to prove was responsible for the death of her parents. This doesn’t sit well with her younger brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who was only 10 when he was locked up for killing their dad, and has spent the last decade convincing himself that the doctors were right for doing so. Oculus hits its stride around the time the two converge on the old family home, where Kaylie has set up an elaborate system of cameras, thermometers, and unfortunately ineffectual safety precautions.
For all his adherence to hoary haunted-house convention, writer-director Mike Flanagan is smart enough to create some real dramatic tension between his mutually traumatized protagonists—two siblings wrestling with the horrors of their shared childhood in conflicting ways. (Just as Tim needs to deny his memories of spectral abuse in order to complete his recovery process, Kaylie finds the supernatural explanation of events much more comforting than the alternative.) There’s something unmistakably Stephen King about much of Oculus: Flanagan cuts between past and present, à la It, before shrewdly blurring those lines in the film’s tumultuous second half. He also has Kaylie read aloud the long, sordid history of the mirror—a dread-building strategy lifted from both The Shining and “1408.” At the same time, the ghost itself operates in a very Freddy Krueger-like manner, confusing reality and fantasy in the minds of its victims. Perhaps that’s why Kaylie seems to have taken some tips from Nightmare On Elm Street’s Nancy, even constructing a dangerous booby trap that—as Chekhov might helpfully note—is introduced in the first act.
Reasonably clever and never as generic as its title might suggest, Oculus nevertheless falters in the one area that should have been a given: the conception of potent, original scares. Fear is as subjective as humor, and there may be plenty who find the film’s litany of tropes—the haggish spirit, the father gone Jack Torrance—plenty effective. But that doesn’t excuse the overall familiarity of such terror tactics, the sense that we’ve seen all of this mayhem staged better elsewhere. (Credit where credit’s due: Katee Sackhoff, of Battlestar Galactica fame, tackles the thankless role of the heroes’ doomed mother with more conviction than was probably strictly necessary.) No jaded horror fans are going to get goosebumps from Oculus’ recycled tricks. But they may experience a chill of delight watching Gillan, who swells with righteous satisfaction upon the first sign of trouble, as though her character is actually willing the dark spirits into existence just to prove her point. She also takes a big, accidental bite out of a lightbulb. Again, any deviation is welcome.