A pair of siblings face off against a mirror with the intent of proving that it caused the death of their parents. In doing so, however, the siblings must face the realities of the intense trauma they were forced to endure as children.
Co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Oculus gives off a brooding sense of dread from the very start. The low-key, pulsating music that lightly pounds away indicates a feeling of unease for the viewer and characters alike. It’s immediately clear that the two main characters, Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites), have a very dark history that stems from their youth, and the siblings have dealt with these issues in differing ways. Where Kaylie believes that their troubled past, specifically the death of their parents, is a direct result of a haunted mirror, Tim – who was just released from a mental institution for murdering his father in self defense – believes that everything was a result of their father being crazy.
Taking place primarily in one location (the house that Kaylie and Tim grew up in), the film’s narrative bounces back and forth between the present – where Kaylie is trying to prove that the mirror is evil – and the past, where the sibling’s history is revealed over the course of the film. The events from both the present and the past run parallel together in a manner that effectively reveals the perfect amount of information at the right time, making the narrative approach an effective storytelling tool. This is especially true during the film’s final act, where the line between the present and the past begin to blur, as does the line between illusion and reality.
Oculus shares a number of similar themes with Flanagan’s previous film, the solid and atmospheric Absentia. Themes of mental instability and a fractured family unit are as much a drive of Oculus as the mirror featured within the film. Flanagan’s script takes a hard and difficult look at a variety of familial issues such as infidelity, spousal abuse, child abuse, and abandonment. The way in which these family problems can and do affect children is front and center of it all, which adds an impact far more terrifying than that of any monster, ghost or demon. These familial issues carry weight because they are, in one way or another, reflective of the types of issues that many children are forced to deal with in real life. No matter what your socioeconomic situation may be, almost every child will face some form of varying hardship, which is often amplified simply because they are in fact children. Children are quite vulnerable at the mercy of their parents, something of which is effectively featured in Oculus.
Where Flanagan has shown a penchant for creating atmosphere and dread, he is also showing increased growth as a visual filmmaker. Guided by crafty cinematography by Michael Fimognari, Oculus is highlighted by an impressive visual prowess. The camera movement and tracking shots featured early in the film flawlessly flow throughout the single home location, giving the viewer ample opportunity understand the layout of the home while also getting a grip on the characters and their specific situation. There are also moments of great technical subtlety, leading to a steady stream of tension during key scenes, especially during the film’s final moments.
Highlighting the impressive filmmaking and script are stellar performances by a small but dedicated cast of actors. Kaylie and Tim’s parents, Marie and Alan (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), bring intensity to the screen without ever going too far over-the-top, which would certainly be the easiest route to take with such a film. The standout performances, however, are equally shared by both Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, who play Kaylie and Tim as adults, and Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who play the characters as children. The film weighs heavily on these two characters both in the past and the present, and all of their performances steadily support the intensity of the story in a way that transcends your typical horror yarn.
Where the current state of theatrically released horror seems to be stuck in a rut of unoriginality and bland trends, Oculus is a rarity in that it delivers an original story that is both accessible and intense. The cheap thrills are kept to a bare minimum, allowing ample time to develop strong characters to go with the well-crafted horror elements. Creativity and care are attributes that seem to be missing in theatrical horror as of late, and it is these attributes that set Oculus apart from the rest of the pack.