Who’s the creepiest of them all
If you said Oculus, you’re half right, but the correct answer is Blumhouse Productions, who once again offer a strong installment to their expanding collection of low budget horror films (is there such a thing as a high budget horror film?). Oculus is more uncomfortable than horrific, a grimly patient burn of a movie that amounts to a horrifying blaze in the final act. Its unique brand of psychological scares is refreshing and (not counting a few ghoulish entities complete with CGI mirror eyeballs) completely original. Mike Flanagan’s excellent directing reflects well on this clever and original horror film.
Surprisingly, the film’s first half is almost completely devoid of significant scares, instead building up the story and characters. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental hospital years after he murdered his father (Rory Cochrane) for killing his mother (Katee Sackhoff) as a child. He meets up with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who has spent years hunting down the Lasser Glass, an ancient, smudgy decoration she believes is responsible for the death of their parents. The mirror has a long history of killing its owners in gruesome ways, using brainwash manipulation to defend itself when people become aware of its powers (people who try to smash it always somehow miss or put the weapon down before they can even swing, etc.). Kaylie is determined to prove that her father didn’t murder her mother, and the glass is responsible.
Returning to their childhood home, Kaylie shows Tim a series of traps she created for the mirror to capture its physical inhabitant (a ghostly woman with mirror eyes) on film, as well as four regular alarms to snap them out of any brainwash the mirror casts on them. The present day redemption mission is expertly intertwined with flashback scenes reflecting on the weeks building up to the murders in the Russell family’s new home (young Kaylie and Tim are played by Annalisse Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively in two impressive young performances). In the past, the mom slowly loses her sanity as the two kids see their dad with a mysterious woman in his office (oh, and probably also because she’s being possessed).
The film’s use of psychology is its best feature, both in intertwining the two timelines to show how much the characters have changed (or stayed the same) since the murders, and in the brand of horror it portrays. With the mirror manipulating reality, Kaylie, Tim, and the audience can never be sure if what’s happening on screen is truly real. The horror truly begins when Kaylie and Tim return to the mirror and find the room completely rearranged, only to watch footage of themselves destroying it minutes ago without any recollection. After that, nothing in the film can be taken for granted, including whether Kaylie’s snack is an apple or a nearby light bulb (one of the most disturbing scenes in a movie I’ve seen in a while).
The only crack in the mirror is the film’s ending, which, without giving away any spoilers, compensates plot progression for the sake of setting up a potential (and likely) sequel. For such a fantastic setup, the ending feels like waiting to be hit by a train and instead receiving a light punch to the stomach (which, in terms of story, is a pretty accurate feeling). Or maybe it’s because Flanagan wasn’t expecting us to be quite as invested in these characters as we were thanks to Gillan, who takes what could have been a forgettable role and forges a realistic and sympathetic revenge-driven trauma survivor who is enamoring to watch.
Then again, even if Flanagan did underestimate Gillan, there’s no way he didn’t understand that audiences would hold their breath and follow along with Jeff Howard’s clever script every step of the way. Oculus creates completely original scares and atmosphere rather than recycling cliché ones. Excuse me while I go buy a nightlight.