A traumatic past, parallel storylines, and a haunted mirror make up Oculus, an inventive and infectious horror film getting a release seven months after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. While avoiding common pitfalls, such as giving away too much too soon and having an inexplicable ending, director Mike Flanagan presents a refreshing and often disturbing piece of creepy cinema.
After spending many years in a mental institution, Tim Russell is finally released on his 21st birthday, but while he is eager to move forward, his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) can’t wait to rehash the past. It’s a past though that they disagree on, and for some time it’s unsure who has a better grasp on it.
It doesn’t help either that we as the audience can’t be sure what happened; as the present day narrative unfolds, we get glimpses into the past. The two timelines intersect and overlap with more frequency and obscurity as the film really gets going.
What we do know is that the Russell parents died in horrific fashion in their home, with both children somehow involved. Tim attributes it to a fractured marriage and a fit of rage paired with some psychotic breakdowns among the married couple, while Kaylie believes it to be the work of a possessed mirror – typical, right?
The seemingly fearless and spunky red-head (who happens to make a hypnotic entrance) recovers the historic mirror, returning with it to her childhood home alongside a plethora of contraptions in order to catalog the murderous misdoings of this spirited object. There are temperature controls, healthy plants, cameras, laptops, and even a dog to help track….well, the supernatural entity that lurks within mirror. The siblings hole up, waiting for signs of life – or death – and as time passes in the house, they recount a murky past.
It’s not your typical haunted house story, firstly, well, because it’s the mirror that is haunted, supposedly. Nevertheless, when we meet our characters, they have already endured their traumatic and unexplained experience. Kaylie isn’t some helpless random being plagued; she is on a mission, and instead of something haunted going after unsuspecting victims, it’s a determined woman and her brother set out to fight back and destroy the evil presence – or at least document it.
We basically begin at the point in which so many supernatural horror films wait don’t get to until the third act; and that helps keep things incredibly tense and unpredictable. Kaylie’s monologue about her scientific experiment is sort of funny, but with Tim acting as the skeptic, everything adds up, and we don’t have to believe her until we are ready to.
You can’t trust what you’re seeing, and neither can the Russell siblings, and yet somehow it all seems to make sense. What’s particularly impressive is that it’s not simply the moments that could be scary that keep your attention; Oculus is fairly dialogue-driven yet still compelling. However, when things really start to get going, maybe with about 30 minutes left, there isn’t a moment to catch your breath until the credits roll.
Seamlessly switching between the dual stories, Flanagan’s bloody and genuinely terrifying horror film is filled with some potent image burning and uncomfortable sequences of the grotesque. There is more than just noises in the dark and flashes of specters; tension rises as both narratives meet their unforgettable and fated conclusions.