Silver Screen: Oculus ***1/2
There’s a nice throwaway gag in an old episode of Family Guy that features Stephen King pitching a new horror novel to his editor. “Okay, for my three-hundred-and-seventh book, this couple is attacked by,” King says, looking around the room before grabbing a desk lamp, “... a lamp monster! Ooooooh!” His beleaguered editor shrugs and says, “Eh, when can I have it?”
The pitch for Oculus couldn’t have been more than a half-step removed from that. Reduced to its essence, the movie is about two people menaced by a haunted mirror. Ooh, a haunted mirror! It never quite hangs straight and doesn’t reflect the stains on your shirt and always shows you in bad lighting!
Yet from this probably-gonna-be-stupid premise comes a surprisingly effective, adept scary movie that nicely balances psychological horror with more visceral frights.
The first task Oculus must accomplish is answering the obvious question, “So why don’t you just break the stupid mirror?” The filmmakers not only provide a passable supernatural explanation, but they weave that very idea into crux of the plot.
As children, Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) had their lives torn apart shortly after their father (Rory Cochrane) bought a spooky antique mirror for his office. Both of their parents seem to fall first into a depression, then experience a psychotic breakdown. Ultimately their father killed their mother (Katee Sackhoff) before young Tim shot him.
A decade later, Tim (played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental hospital. His grownup sister (Karen Gillan) is there to pick him up, but she’s got a nasty surprise. During their separation and Tim’s incarceration, she studied the mirror’s dark history and tracked it down through an auction house. She wants to destroy it, but first she wants to exonerate both Tim and her father by proving that the mirror is a paranormal force that drove them to murder.
Kaylie’s plan is well thought-out. She reinstalls the mirror in their old house, then rigs all the rooms with video cameras. The cameras are there both to capture video evidence of supernatural activity as well as help them distinguish shadows from reality; the mirror has a way of distorting people’s perceptions. A decade of therapy has convinced Tim that the story of the mirror was all a hallucination, so first Kaylie must remind him of the truth— but was he ever really crazy, or is she?
Oculus simultaneously plays out across two timelines. We see the breakdown of the family leading up to the tragedy crosscut with Kaylie and Tim’s attempt to reconcile their memories of the past. Director and cowriter Mike Flanagan shrewdly calls into question some basic details of their earlier recollections, establishing the possibility that neither of their versions of the tale may be accurate. Whether they’re influenced by mental illness or some sinister outside force remains unclear.
Certainly something is skewing their perceptions. The crux of Oculus’s psychological horror is the notion that you can never be positive that what you see, hear, and think hews closely to reality. The phenomenon becomes increasingly intense and frantic as the movie wears on, so much so that it becomes a slight hindrance to the story in the final act. Flanagan pulls back from so many sequences to reveal that they’re dreams or a fantasies that a couple of the movie’s biggest shocks don’t register until several minutes later when it’s finally established, yeah, that really did happen. It strips some big moments of consequence, although Flanagan does lead viewers toward a humdinger of an ending.
The solution to Oculus’s confusing, sometimes confounding climax is there are all along, but alas, Flanagan doesn’t put it to use. The cameras and computer monitors set throughout the house are established as always recording what is really taking place; cutting back to them more often would help viewers keep track of what’s transpiring. It’s a tricky balance, though, and Flanagan at least deserves credit for not taking the easy way out and turning the whole enterprise into a found-footage cheapie. The stationary cameras may be reminiscent of the influential Paranormal Activity, but Oculus is handsome, atmospheric, and far more cinematic than any of the Paranormal clones. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s one of the more adept genre films of the year so far— so much so it will almost certainly be ruined by sequels of diminishing quality that are pale reflections of the original.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.