Movie Review: ‘Oculus’ all optical illusion

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the creepiest villain of them all?

According to “Oculus,” the answer is an antique mirror that inexplicably causes its owners to go insane and kill themselves (and occasionally others) in an incredibly gruesome fashion.

The film centers on an insanely attractive brother-sister duo, Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan, of “Doctor Who” fame, and Brandon Thwaites), who aim to “kill” the mirror in revenge for the grief it has caused their family. Frequent flashbacks show Kaylie and Tim as children discovering the power the mirror has over their parents, Alan and Marie (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, of “Battlestar Galactica”).

The Russell family’s story is uncomfortably similar to “The Amityville Horror” – family moves into new house, dog starts acting funny, kids see ghosts, dad goes homicidal – but the movie’s constant pull back to the present sets “Oculus” apart, as we see the effect the experience has had on Kaylie, who is creepily and matter-of-factly obsessed with destroying the mirror, and Tim, who has finally been released from a mental institution after 11 years and wants to move on with his life.

The present-day storyline revolves around Kaylie and her single-minded obsession with killing the mirror. Her character comes across as cold and callous as she continues to put her quest to kill the mirror over her brother’s precarious mental health, not to mention her own safety.

She also has no qualms about lying to her fiance and coworkers about her intentions for the mirror, which she has procured through her art-and-antique-selling business.

This attitude is startling in its contrast with her younger self. Young Kaylie and Young Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) are the most developed, well-written and best-acted characters in the film. Their reaction to the terror in their home feels completely genuine as they see their parents slowly unraveling and try to get help. Their attempts to call 9-1-1 and get help from a neighbor are heartbreaking, as is their dependence on one another as they realize they may not survive.

Young Kaylie is first and foremost her brother’s protector. It’s difficult to tell whether the grown-up Kaylie thinks she is filling this role by destroying the mirror or whether she’s no longer thinking clearly at all.

The idea of a haunted mirror – and the film’s name, “Oculus,” suggesting the eye – seems the ideal setting for the film’s victims to be confronted by their own demons. This plays out well with the character of Marie Russell, whose insecurities are used against her by the mirror – and is displayed effectively through Sackhoff’s incredibly emotive face – but never goes any further. While Marie is driven crazy by self-hatred, it seems the mirror tortures everyone else for no reason and with no knowledge of their weaknesses or inner struggles.

The film briefly plays with the idea of mental illness as Tim and Kaylie find that they have opposing memories of the same events, and realize the mirror can trick them into seeing things that aren’t there; but for the most part, it relies on typical, horror movie schtick – there are gory scenes involving ripped-off fingernails and glass-chewing; a plethora of ghosts; and plenty of creepy moments of the lights-out, no cellphone reception, empty house variety.

Most frustrating is the film’s contradictory set of rules for the mirror. While it apparently has tricked multiple people into killing themselves and is able to protect itself from harm, it can’t seem to keep Kaylie from getting it into her hands and into the house, or from filming it and conducting experiments on it. Sometimes it can control people’s physical actions and even their thoughts, but other times, when it seems it would be most opportune, it doesn’t seem to bother.

And nothing explains why the mirror didn’t kill Kaylie and Tim the first time it had the chance. Additionally, Kaylie and Tim realize it’s harder for the mirror to trick them when they stay together; but then they infuriatingly seem unable to stay in the same room for more than a few minutes without splitting up and allowing the mirror to run wild with their imaginations again.

The ending leaves more questions than answers, which feels a bit unsatisfying, but it fittingly reflects the nature of the mirror itself, leaving audiences feeling they’ve just witnessed – rather than a complex story – an elaborate optical illusion.

2 stars out of 4.

Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.