By on April 17, 2014

Hey kids! It’s horror movie Mad Libs time!

Here’s how we play! Just insert the appropriate words in the appropriate slots and you’re good to go…

________ (Title of movie) is the latest from the _______ (producer(s) of note) and ______ (director of note), the filmmakers behind the hugely successful horror movies _______ and ______ (movie titles of note). It stars ______ , _______, ________ (big name star(s) and/or cult favorites). It’s the chilling story of a young girl and/or boy who band together to fight an evil ______(evil thing of choice), in order to ______ (action-oriented verb) their  _______ (Person, place or thing).

I’ll go first!

“Oculus” is the latest from producers Peter Schlessel & Marc D. Evans and director Mike Flanagan, the filmmakers behind the hugely successful horror movies “Insidious,” “The Strangers” and the indie flick “Absentia.” It stars cult favorites Karen Gillan (“Dr. Who”), Katee Sackhoff (“Battlestar Galatica”) and Rory Cochrane (“Dazed & Confused”). It’s the chilling story of a young boy and girl who band together to fight an evil mirror, in order to save their father’s reputation as a murderer.

It’s just that easy!

Okay, so, moving on…as you might have guessed by now, “Oculus” is fairly standard horror movie, mostly notable for the presence of the aforementioned cult stars. Now, mind you, I love me some redheads, and Gillan’s swishing ponytail in the early scenes had me as entranced as Pepe Le Pew hot on the trail of a paint-striped cat, so the film did have that going for it at least. Gillan is so effortlessly likable, you can’t help but root for her, even while you know, despite all her careful planning to the matter at hand, she will likely not have a happy ending ahead of her. Never poke the metaphorical bear in a horror movie, people.

The film revolves around her quest to prove that it was, in fact, a haunted mirror that caused her mom and dad to go mental and led to their respective grisly deaths, one of which was directly committed by her brother (newcomer Brenton Thwaites), who went to a mental institution for his troubles, where he was rehabilitated to believe that his actions were simply an attempt to protect his sister.

They were, but there was also some pretty crazy, unexplainable stuff going on at the time as well, and therein lies the bulk of the movie, as Gillan tries to prove her theory that the mirror was the real cause behind their parent’s untimely demises, and Thwaites tries to convince her it’s all ridiculous, because he’s blocked it all out. As such, the film goes back and forth between the present day action and flashbacks to when they were kids.

Far and away the film’s most brilliant conceit is the way it blurs the line between reality and illusion, taking the whole “was it all just a dream and/or a hallucination of some kind”-gambit to an all-new level. As the siblings begin to question their surroundings and what they think they know, so does the film play with what’s real or not with the audience. As the film unspools, it becomes harder and harder to tell illusion from reality, and that’s a interesting spin on the typical approach to such films, where a dream is revealed as a dream either directly after something weird happens or at the end of the film, and the same holds true for hallucinations.

Is Gillan’s character crazy? Is Thwaites? Or is the mirror actually haunted, like she claims? We get a lot of evidence for the latter, but the film manages to keep you guessing until it becomes patently obvious something crazy is going on. Unless you consider, say, eating a light bulb like an apple to be normal behavior, that is.

I also liked the way Gillan’s character set up things to a fault in preparation to the undergoing at hand, from installing cameras and motion sensor lights all over the place, to a check-in call from her boyfriend every so often to make sure everything was going alright, and even a failsafe kill switch, just in case things go south. Obviously, they do, or we wouldn’t have a movie.

That said, the film really isn’t that scary, and is relatively predictable on the whole. It’s certainly no “Insidious,” or even a “Paranormal Activity,” for that matter. Hell, it’s not even as good as the similarly-themed “Mirrors,” and that wasn’t exactly a classic for the ages.

That basically leaves the winning performances of the cast and some decent effects here and there, and a somewhat surprising ending, and that’s about it, really. Yes, the approach of the flashbacks is admittedly interesting, and I liked the way it steadily became harder to tell reality from hallucination, but I wish it were in the service of a better film, frankly.

So, sad to say, even Gillan’s effortless charm and swishing bob can’t save this one, I’m afraid. It rates a C+ at best, and that’s me being generous. Gillan and Sackhoff fans will want to see it, for completion’s sake, but all others need not apply.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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