Doctor Who alumni Karen Gillan dealt with all kinds of unearthly forces during her time aboard the Tardis, but few were as quite as emotionally bruising as the demonic mirror in director and co-writer Mike Flanagan’s Oculus.
Gillan plays Kaylie, a 20-something woman whose prior history with said mirror is long and grim. An antique that once took pride of place in her father’s office, the mirror ultimately led to a family tragedy which ended with both parents dead and her brother locked away in a mental institution. A decade later, and with brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) recently released, Kaylie resolves to track down the mirror, put it back in their childhood home, and confront its evil forces head-on.
With cameras rigged up and a string of precautions set, Kaylie plans to capture the entity inside the mirror on film before destroying it. Unfortunately, the ancient evil is far more powerful than she or her sceptical brother had bargained for.
Evil household objects are a genre staple, and elements of Oculus are familiar from the increasingly hokey Amityville Horror franchise: 1993 straight-to-video sequel A New Generation even had an evil mirror at its centre. But Oculus is distinguished by the quality of Mike Flanagan’s direction, which cuts between the sister and brother’s traumatic childhood memories and their investigations in the present, providing a deliciously unnerving new angle on familiar horror themes.
Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane are good value as their increasingly fractious and scary parents, and Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan quite believable as the youthful versions of Kaylie and Tim. After a somewhat slow and shaky start, where we’re introduced to Kaylie at an auction and Tim on the cusp of rejoining civilian life, Oculus begins to find its stride when the story relocates to the pair’s childhood home.
It’s here, as relates the history of the mirror and her plan to scientifically outwit the evil – a neat concept which could have come from a Richard Matheson or Nigel Kneale story – that the intrigue really starts to bite. Once clearly-defined flashbacks begin to connect to events in the present with increasing liquidity, and it’s this eerie, quite original approach to editing that provides some of Oculus’s most unsettling moments. Sure, the various apparitions provide a few jolts of terror, and the mirror’s Poltergeist-like ability to make its victims hallucinate results in a couple of really effective shocks, but it’s when Flanagan plays with our perception of space and time that Oculus becomes more than just another haunted-object flick.
By the story’s mid-point, the past and the present have begun to elide so seamlessly into each other that our bewilderment is on a par with Kaylie and Tim’s. Like the central characters, we’re no longer quite sure whose subjective reality we’re seeing: hers, his, or the damned thing lurking behind the ancient mirror.
Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is distinctive and classy, with a use of intense light and shade vaguely akin to David Fincher’s regular photographer Jeff Cronenweth’s approach to staging a scene. The Newton Brothers’ throbbing, soundtrack – part electronic, part orchestral – is also appropriately unsettling, and complement’s the story’s modern tech-versus-ancient evil theme.
For Doctor Who fans, Karen Gillan is likely to be the main draw here, and while she’s saddled with an American accent that occasionally slips, she’s perfectly decent as the resourceful, initially somewhat glib elder sister. The lesser-known Thwaites is disarmingly fragile as her brother, initially doubtful about Kaylie’s supernatural theories, but gradually converted to her way of thinking as the mirror’s power becomes apparent.
Frustratingly, Oculus’s accomplished set-up gives way to a conclusion that, although not exactly predictable, certainly feels like something of an anti-climax when compared to the reality-bending stuff that came before it. And while there’s nothing wrong with a sense of mystery in horror, it does feel as though some aspects of Oculus’s story remain unresolved: the mirror has a quite specific set of effects on its victims, but they’re never satisfactorily explained. Why, other than the pure shock value, does one unfortunate character have a tendency to eat the fragments of broken plant pots?
These reservations aside, Oculus is a classy, technically assured horror, with its approach to lighting and editing forming an integral part of its shocks rather than a superficial layer of gloss. As the nights draw in, Oculus offers a shudder-inducing jolt of the supernatural. Sequels will surely follow.
Oculus is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.
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