As inanimate household objects go, I’ve always found mirrors to be rather creepy, so if you’re going to build a horror movie around such an item, it’s one of the better choices. That’s exactly what writer-director Mike Flanagan has done with Oculus, but he creates a far more compelling scenario than simply ‘group of unknowing teens are scared and picked off by a spooky mirror’. Real thought has gone into giving Oculus the feel of a traditional haunted house horror with a fresh narrative.
Flanagan achieves this by skillfully weaving together two timelines in both past and present, concerning younger and older versions of the same siblings. In the present, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just been released from a psychiatric institute he was sent to as a child, now convinced that the traumatic events he experienced were not supernatural, but a result of human evil. He’s greeted by his slightly older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillen) who, contrary to Tim’s new outlook, has developed an extensive theory about how the mirror was responsible. Not only that, she’s tracked it down and plans to spend a night with it in order to prove once and for all that she’s correct. All the while, the film fleshes out their back-story with sequences from their childhood, when they moved into a new house with their parents (Katie Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) that ultimately led to tragedy.
Immediately Oculus sets itself apart from a wealth of horror movies by introducing a protagonist who apparently already knows about the supernatural threat and how to deal with it. Kaylie gives a detailed history of the mirror and all the deaths it’s supposedly caused, not only that, she’s set up a wealth of equipment to overcome the mirror’s power. She believes she can anticipate its every move, and is holding it hostage with a giant swinging pendulum on a timer to destroy it. This new angle also assists the film’s stand-out factor via Kaylie’s employment of technology, rather than taking place in some far-out cabin or ancient mansion, Oculus revels in using technology to enhance its ability to scare, and whenever the power goes, Kaylie’s already installed a back-up plan.
Avoiding resorting to some of the more typical trends of haunted house horror doesn’t mean that Oculus is short on the frights though, Flanagan, who also served as the film’s editor, knows how to cook up a tense atmosphere and get in a good jump-scare when he wants to. It’s also great to see that the film hasn’t had any rating limits forced upon it. It’s not neutered by having a PG-13 restriction, but doesn’t feel the need to pile in torture scenes to justify the expectations of a stricter rating either, it’s only violent when it needs to be.
Doctor Who star Karen Gillen makes for a decent lead in her first major American role, always sounding smart and competent when her words sound crazy to her brother. Their skeptic/believer dynamic works well for the film at first but is dragged out a little too long before Tim starts coming around. The present day narrative is the main focus of the film but the flashbacks never feel intrusive, and still pack in a number of surprises despite the opening spelling out their conclusion.
Oculus is a smart little horror that deftly demonstrates Mike Flanagan’s ability to craft an entertainingly scary sequence while including more modern elements on a low-budget. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, it employs a number of established conventions too, and horror fans may see a lot of it coming, but shows promise for him.