Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as Kaylie Russell and Tim Russell in a supernatural, psychological horror story that’s as much psychological as it’s supernatural. The movie covers two stages – when they’re 23 and 21, the present (2013), and when they’re 12 and 10, the past (2002).
As we’d realize later, a 10-year Tim is taken under custody for patricide. Just before that, however, he and Kaylie promise to destroy the artifact that they believe is behind all the occurrences. When Tim returns home after 11 years, Kaylie and Tim give it one last try – to destroy the antic mirror that their father bought in an auction. The mirror, for them, is the cause behind countless homicides. Their family only plays a small part in the mayhem initiated by the possessed mirror. Their pact? To finish it off.
In Latin, oculus means eyes. In the movie, the people lured into demonic acts by the timeworn mirror find their eyes transformed into mirrors. It could symbolize that the mirror forces these people to divert their reflections and only realize the vision of the mirror itself, or quite simply – we could infer that our eyes mirror what we see, subjective reality, and we act based on those subjective instincts, for good or bad.
Mike Flanagan sits on the director’s chair again after Absentia (2011), yet, he’s mostly known for directing the well-received student movie, Ghosts of Hamilton Street (2003). In Oculus, Flanagan opts for a non-linear approach. Intercutting between two different time spans within the same house, we see a repeat of the tragedy that panned out 11 years ago in Kaylie and Tim’s quest to destroy the mirror and salvage the souls entrapped in it. As the movie progresses, the adults take precedence to the children forming a compelling revelation of ghostly destruction.
Although the movie isn’t long, it does take a while to build the anticipation. The initial 45 minutes revolve around Kaylie reminding Tim of their childhood. These adults relive what happened 11 years ago and prepare themselves for what could happen today, 11 years later. Yet, tackling the mirror is tricky. The mirror has a shady, dangerous history and it works categorically by distorting their perception, destroying their rationality, and injecting an overriding sense of hopelessness in them.
Flanagan doesn’t go the traditional route with scares as much as he goes for atmospheric creepiness. With the mirror slowly possessing Marie and Alan, parents of Kaylie and Tim, (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), it coaxes them into becoming one with it – overruling them with a Them vs. the World mentality. Pointing to decay as its theme, the mirror first clasps its victims by decoying their inner desires, if it’s by seducing them, torturing them, or poisoning their minds, and after it gets hold of them – it unleashes the monster it has created to ensue destruction.
The story of Oculus isn’t as interesting as much as the presentation of a relatively overdone concept is: possession. Fans of horrors may like it, or shun it, but it’s still interesting and didn’t turn me off. The movie is more discreet than outright scary. The scares are well timed and it tries to blend a movie like The Shining (1980), for example, and an outright slasher like Nightmare at Elm’s Street (1984) maintaining a dwindling mood in doing so.
The pseudo-investigation that Kaylie and Tim carry out of the mystery is the best part of the movie. It keeps you guessing and doesn’t distract you. As Kaylie and Tim continue to dig deep, within themselves and of the peculiar manifestations, revisiting their escapades as children, the movie treads deeper into dread, which is quite interesting to watch.
For a standard medium-budget horror movie, Flanagan does a good job of trying to walk on a thin rope of tradition and not falling prey to its oddities. The elements are present, of course, with the script timed well into convention, and the plot points being similar to horrors of the past, yet the treatment makes the difference.
Oculus has decent performances by the cast. Karen Gillan is adept as Kaylie and her authority remains on show throughout the movie. She’s pretty to boot if off, and through her we actually get a character that is able to command and lure whenever she deems fit. The rest have done okay, even though they’re not as commanding as Karen is.
Oculus also looks good visually. It’s something you’d expect from traditional horror movies set inside modern Victorian-styled houses. The way makers play with hallucination, illusion, and reality is also worth noting, even though the ending is predictable and is subject to the conventional trap of horrors. It does leave the space open for sequels, but with that intention, it’s difficult to appreciate it. Flanagan seems to have one eye on the future. That makes sense economically, but it gave the movie a defunct ending. Audiences would feel underwhelmed by the anti-climax and that drags the movie down. It did for me.
Oculus had a high ceiling. It doesn’t quite get close to touching it, but it’s a decent watch. I doubt non-horror fans would appreciate it, or even majority of horror fanatics—a shame because the movie had so much potential.