Review: OCULUS (2014){0}

Mirrors are sort of fascinating – how they actually work, not just the ways in which mirrors can act as portals, creatures, and harbingers in fantasy and horror stories – but if you ask a horror movie aficionado about “that movie about the killer mirror, you’ll get a response like Mirrors (1995) or (dear lord) one of those awful “Mirror Mirror” junk piles. (I actually kind of liked the Kiefer Mirrors movie; crazy, I know.)
The egotist’s best friend has graced many a great horror moment or sequence, but when you decide to centre your movie on a mirror, you better be careful; if your mirror doesn’t have some substantial humans to bounce off of… it’s just an inanimate object. Fortunately, Mike Flanagan’s smoothly satisfying new horror film Oculus has two distinct subplots full of interesting characters, and the ominous mirror doesn’t only reflect an interesting pair of terrifying tales; it becomes a character that ties everything together.

Based on Flanagan’s and Jeff Seidman’s short film “Oculus: The Man with the Plan” (included on the Blu-ray) the longer version of Oculus is a pretty straightforward affair: Kaylie Russell is a lovely young woman, but she’s had a pretty rough life. Both of her parents were murdered inside the family home, and her long-hospitalised little brother is finally getting out of a mental institution. Also, she is convinced that an antique mirror contains a supernatural force that caused all the bloody mayhem and horrific family tragedy about a decade earlier.

It’s an ironic twist of the consistently clever screenplay that the allegedly insane Tim Russell is the voice of reason where “the mirror” is concerned, while the ostensibly more responsible Kaylie is the one setting up video cameras and timers and pick-axes in an effort to A) prove there’s something sinister inside the mirror, and B) destroy the evil piece of glass once and for all. (This mirror is remarkably impervious to damage!)

If it sounds like much of Oculus is broad or goofy, rest assured that director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and co-writer Jeff Howard (and a superlative cast) seem well aware of how silly this tale could be. The dialogue between Kaylie (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is legitimately interesting, insightful talk about fantasy, reality, memory, and dreams, and the simple yet effective plot details are doled out in sly and subtle fashion.

Even better is Flanagan’s editorial skill; Oculus frequently leaps back in time so we can see what the hell actually went down with that mirror and Ma & Pa Russell in the first place. It takes an astute editor to know precisely when a viewer wants to “switch over” to the alternate plot. Mr. Flanagan pulls this trick off at least four or five times as Oculus ties its two connected tales together with style, confidence, and plenty of straight, simple, enjoyable scares.

Ms. Gillan and Mr. Thwaites are simply excellent, particularly in the film’s mid-section – which is precisely when a horror movie needs some narrative meat or some emotional roughage to stay interesting – and when the film flips back to the early 2000s, we have two great young actors (Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan) as the long-suffering Russell kids, and the always entertaining Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as, well, two sweet parents who simply bought the wrong damn mirror. And boy do they live to regret it.

Satisfying in a “smart indie flick” way and more than appealing enough to work as a mainstream horror film at the multiplexes, Oculus is not only an improvement over the already worthwhile Absentia; it’s a great example of how to expand, not just lengthen, a short film into a feature. This, quite simply, is a cool, classy, and frequently very creepy horror tale, and exceedingly well-told, too.


Scott Weinberg (@scottEweinberg)