Despite the rather ridiculous premise of two siblings battling a satanic mirror on a four-century-long murdering spree, Mike Flanagan’s psychological horror Oculus provides an interesting deviation from the modern onslaught of ’80s remakes and Paranormal Activity spinoffs. The story follows Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, respectively) who witnessed their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) murdering their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) 11 years prior. After being released from a mental institution for shooting his father, the 21-year-old Tim reunites with his older sister Kaylie, who swiftly drags him into her obsessive crusade to prove their misfortunes were caused by an antique mirror. When Kaylie acquires the haunted artifact and Tim helps move it into their old house, the two siblings confront their past as the mirror begins to exert its frightening influence.
What stands out about Oculus is its extremely ambitious and well-executed editing. Bouncing back and forth between past and present, the audience witnesses the process of Alan and Marie descending into madness while the adult Kaylie and Tim routinely endure horrific illusions and hallucinations. Flanagan does an excellent job with pacing, as the timelines become so interwoven that they eventually blur into one overlapping sequence. The effect is absolutely surreal, and it is sure to leave some audience members truly confounded.
Still, the most important question remains: is it scary? Frankly, not really, but in fairness, Flanagan appeared more intent on messing with his characters’ heads, as well as the audience’s. Indeed, it seems inevitable that at least a few audience members may utter aloud, “What the hell?!” as the movie becomes increasingly bewildering and disturbing. Unfortunately, there are a few factors that greatly hamper Oculus‘ effectiveness as a horror film. The prevalence of distorted perception becomes an obvious trope set by a few precedents early in the movie. Consequently, Oculus becomes fairly mundane as every twist and turn isn’t necessarily predictable so much as thoroughly unsurprising. Although the exact details and circumstances may not be blatant, the basic gist of the “shocking” ending is so agonizingly apparent within the first 20 or so minutes that the suspense of the climax is woefully mitigated.
The childhood plot, though fairly well acted-even child actors Annalise Basso (young Kaylie) and Garrett Ryan (young Tim) offer solid performances-a few too many events come across as unintentionally comical. One of the early indications that the mirror is distorting reality is when Marie and Alan insist to each other that one said something that the other denied uttering. For example, as Marie is exiting Alan’s office (where the mirror is hanging), Alan’s voice can be heard muttering “grotesque cow” as the camera focuses solely on Marie. When Marie turns around Alan innocently denies saying anything.
The writing evidently held back the drama and believability of the plot. By the time Alan devolves into a full-blown psychopath, his behavior only becomes more laughably suspicious. Despite decent performances, the material itself obviously posed a challenge for the actors. For example, Kaylie, as she first confronts the mirror, absurdly muses to herself how the antique is probably “hungry” as she speaks to it. Given that Oculus is a horror movie, one can expect that the script isn’t particularly strong or memorable. In addition, the ghoulish-eyed figures haunting the house appear so casually on screen that it is unclear whether they were intended to be “terrifying” or simply symbolic. It would be unfair, however, to say Oculus doesn’t have its twisted moments. There is certainly a fair amount of grotesque and eerie imagery that will definitely make the faint of heart squirm in discomfort. To his credit, Flanagan can pull the few legitimate thrills off without gratuitous quantities of blood or overuse of cheap jump-scares.
Although it has its fair share of flaws, Oculus has some intriguing and well-executed techniques that set it apart from most contemporary horror films. At the very least, it feels refreshingly different. While it certainly isn’t a classic that will spark heated analysis, Flanagan provides a healthy amount of ambiguity that allows audiences to theorize and interpret. It also leaves plenty of room for a sequel.