Eleven years ago, Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) watched their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) and mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) slowly go insane. Their father went from secretive to paranoid to murderous, their mother slowly lost her mind, and after their father killed their mother, Tim killed their father. The kids blamed it all on a haunted mirror; Kaylie ends up in the foster system, and Tim goes to the mental hospital. After several years of therapy, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) gets released into society, and his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is ready to help him get back on his feet. She’s also ready to get revenge.
Kaylie still owns the family house, and the auction house she works for has recently acquired the mirror that brought their family to ruin. She’s obsessed with the mirror and its destruction, and now that her brother is out of the institution, they can finally do what they promised one another as children. Except that Tim has had his head completely rearranged; where Kaylie remembers the mirror driving their father mad, Tim remembers their father losing his mind. Their mother who pulled out her own teeth? She was just sick, driven mad by their father’s affairs.
Kaylie still has a vendetta against that evil mirror, and she’s going to destroy it, brother or no brother. However, as the events of the night get stranger and stranger, Tim becomes increasingly convinced that his sister isn’t damaged, just still aware of the truth. Will drawing out the evil within the mirror cleanse the family name, or simply doom them both?
I have to give Karen Gillan for trying to adopt an American accent during this film. That said, it’s not a wildly successful attempt. She has trouble with American-style pronunciation of the letter R, and some of her vowels were shaped a little different. At some parts, particularly in the beginning, I wasn’t aware that she was even doing an American accent, but it was at least consistently inconsistent. It doesn’t take much shine off her performance, which is pretty good by horror movie standards. The child actors, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, also avoid falling into any of the standard child actor traps and acquit themselves well. The strongest performance has to be that of Katee Sackhoff, the cursed Marie Russell. She really attacks her role, all ticks and crazy staring eyes and snarling, and it’s all the better for it, because she’s pretty terrifying as her possession grows and she falls more and more under the mirror’s thrall.
The strong performance of the child actors is emphasized by the film’s structure. Director Mike Flanagan begins the film in a pretty standard, linear way, but as Kaylie and Tim begin to dig further back into their pasts, things begin to get weird—both for the characters and the audience. The lines of reality blur quite expertly, as young Kaylie interacts with adult Tim, young Tim interacts with adult Kaylie, the adults see their child selves, the children see their adult selves, and the adults see their adult selves in acute peril courtesy of the mirror. Present and past, reality and hallucination, fear and paranoia all go into a blender set to chop, making for a real pleasing mess of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff that would even confuse the Doctor.
There are a lot of tight shots of faces and expressions. This is a multi-screen movie, in which characters use cameras, computer monitors, and phones to compare reality with their perception of reality… though can you really trust what you see on a screen if you can’t trust your own reflection in an evil mirror? Even with evidence, video recording, the clever use of research by Kaylie to give the back story of the mirror to both the film’s audience and the audience for her home movies of a creepy mirror, there are a lot of moments where you cannot be sure what you’re seeing is actually happening to these character, in a very positive sense. Oculus never descents into full-throated chaos, but it flirts with the chaos line while sticking to a pretty solid, familiar narrative.
In a lot of ways, it’s an improvement over Absentia, Flanagan’s 2011 horror film that also played with perception versus reality. As what is real is merely a construct of the brain, it’s interesting to see how the two siblings relive the same events. Tim has been thoroughly broken by his time in the mental institution and rebuilt by his doctors to believe the official story of what happened; Kaylie remembers what actually happened in all its crazy glory. The script, from Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based off of the original short by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman), spends a lot of time playing with just who remembers things better, but it is also a little too open about the direction the film is going to take. It foreshadows a couple of big twists, and it is a pretty predictable until the movie goes off the rails.
It’s a question that merits being asked. For a movie that nimbly being boring by having a lot of fun with the form of a standard haunted house movie, it also stays fairly close to the genre conventions. I like the idea that the protagonists are the ones who are seeking revenge on the supernatural force that ruined their lives, rather than the other way around. I like that there are predictable ways to tell where the mirror’s spirit of influence is, and how it draws strength from house plants, pets, and delicious light bulbs. However, the father slowly going mad due to the haunted object, the stalking of the kids through the house, the demon’s glowing eyes, the inevitable ending… it all kind of feels too familiar, and the scares are a bit too predictable for a movie that’s having such fun with muddling reality.
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