Who knew that such an unremarkable object could spread such chaos and fear? While this describes the mirror at the centre of this horror tale, it also aptly describes this chilling little film as well. At first glance, there is nothing to separate this movie from any other haunted house mystery churned out these days – but look again, and audiences will find a lot to be excited about.
Oculus follows brother and sister duo Kaylie and Tim as they are reunited finally after many years of Tim being locked away in a mental health rehabilitation centre. This is our first clue that director Mike Flanagan’s film isn’t going for typical scares here; Tim is not a lunatic recently released from an asylum, but clearly a sympathetic fellow troubled by a tragic history – someone who on his release needs help and support to overcome whatever demons he carries. Enter his sister (played by Karen Gillan) who immediately sets out to wreck any hope of that.
You see, while Tim has been receiving seemingly top-notch medical care after the unimaginable childhood trauma of his parents’ brutal murders, his sister has been left alone, allowing her obsession for vengeance to take over her life. Eleven years ago, Kaylie, Tim and their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) moved into a new home, complete with an antique mirror to decorate the father’s home office. A couple of weeks after moving, their father went crazy and tortured their mother before trying to murder both children. That’s the official story anyway. Kaylie knows the truth – that the mirror itself was responsible – and with her brother’s help is setting out to prove what really happened.
Kaylie has finally found the mirror again after years of searching, as it comes into her orbit at the auction house where she works. Taking the opportunity of a few days alone with it, she plots to end its reign of terror once and for all with some ingenious experiments. The mirror – the Lasser Glass – is, as explained in Kaylie’s (excellent) exposition scene, a centuries-old malevolent object that has brought misery and death to every one of its owners. This supernatural force is what drove the siblings’ parents to madness, and what Kaylie seeks to destroy for good by setting up an array of technology – from recording equipment to heat sensors – to catch its evil influence on camera. Maybe another director would have taken this concept and fashioned a found-footage drama out of it, but luckily Flanagan knows better than that.
Over the course of one night we watch as Kaylie and Tim attempt to survive the craziness the mirror throws at them, with this interspersed with flashbacks to what happened to their family all those years ago.
What is most unsettling in this movie is that there are no monsters involved; the real enemies are ourselves – our obsessions, jealousies and ignorant beliefs. The mirror toys with perception to manipulate actions and thoughts. Even when the characters think they are in control, there is always a niggling doubt that that may not be the case at all. How do you trust reality when you can’t even trust your own judgement?
Maybe the lesson to learn here though is, when the Devil is messing with you, don’t try to mess with the Devil. Just turn and run far away in the opposite direction. Kaylie’s crusade is foolhardy despite being well-planned. There are real stakes involved in the game she plays, and the film brilliantly conveys the escalating dread and suspense as the mayhem erupts. Kaylie is too ensnared in her own quest for closure that she doesn’t realise the true danger of her undertaking and the full menace posed by her demonic foe. By dragging her little brother into this peril, she fails to see that she’s not actually saving him, but ruining his life once more.
Oculus is not a gory film, but it does have some stand-out, impressively shocking and grisly moments. Gillan puts in a committed performance as Kaylie, although Annalise Basso who plays her younger self does outshine other actors in the production. Brenton Thwaites as Tim takes a while to warm up on the screen and seems the weaker of the sibling pairing throughout, while Katee Sackhoff is fantastic, playing a woman shifting from vulnerable to unhinged to great effect. It’s just a shame Sackhoff wasn’t given a bit more to work with to fully express the character’s frustrations.
The film has big ambitions with a tiny budget and must be applauded for what has been achieved within a relatively minimal production. There is a sinister, creeping sense throughout watching Oculus that jumps are just around the corner, but the film masterfully avoids such predictably cheap tricks. Although there are plot holes apparent, and certain moments could have been executed better, this film is still a tight, fresh entry into the horror genre. Neatly plotted and well acted, with imaginative talent behind the camera, Oculus is a worthy and watchable late-night scare fest.
Oculus is released in UK Cinemas Friday, June 13th