There’s no smoke in this manipulative, derivative, overly complicated gimcrack, but there is a mirror possessing all the powers that can be summoned by a pair of overstretched screenwriters. Originally a 30-minute short, director Mike Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard’s thin scenario does not improve when expanded to feature length. At its best, it delves into the murky areas of memory, childhood trauma, and family conflict. But it forgoes such troubling issues for mumbo jumbo and glowing-eyed wraiths.
You’d think by now, after all the films about demonic artifacts, people would know better than to visit antique stores or estate sales. Not so Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), who buys the creepy 400-year-old Lasser Glass at an auction. It turns out that Kaylie has unfinished business with the antique mirror, which she holds responsible for a tragedy that befell her family 11 years previously when she and her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) were kids.
Tim, meanwhile, has just awakened from a dream in which he has shot the younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso in the film’s best performance). This is merely the first of those “it was only a dream” moments, to be joined by flashbacks, hallucinations, and fake frights that are as tiresome as they are incoherent. Tim tells his shrink about the dream, and the doctor, for some reason, sees this as evidence that Tim now has all his marbles and can be discharged. Shades of “Halloween,” just one of many horror classics “Oculus” steals from.
But there’s no escaping the past, or the haunted mirror and Kaylie’s need for revenge and vindication. She’s clearly been watching a lot of episodes of “Ghost Hunters” because she’s set up the mirror in the abandoned Russell house with heat detectors, cameras, house plants (alive, but for how long?), and a Boston terrier in a cage to prove that its malevolent power was responsible for her family tragedy. As a coup-de-grace, she has set up a weighted anchor to drop like a guillotine and stave in the mirror (which has devious ways of keeping people from simply smashing it) if things get out of hand. That part of the plan does not seem to have been fully thought through.
And so the experiment begins, with Tim’s rationalizing psychobabble, learned during therapy, gaining credence when nothing happens. But then phantoms from the past appear, and the present day Kaylie and Tim keep bumping into their younger selves (Garrett Ryan as young Tim holds his own with Basso) in montages as endless and meaningful as the repeated reflections in parallel mirrors. Despite this folderol, “Oculus” still evokes the terror and helplessness of children at the mercy of unhinged adults. But then the zombified victims of the mirror start piling in, and whatever genuine emotions the film has conjured go up in smoke.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.