Oculus is the kind of horror movie that hits my genre sweet spot, and as a result may be the best of its kind I’ve seen in some time. Too many modern horror movies these days, it seems, fall into two categories: they either utilize the now-exhausted found footage format to tell their story, or the story itself is based on real-life terrors like home invasion or pure shock tactics like the Saw series. Oculus uses traditional filmmaking techniques to tell a story that is firmly rooted in the supernatural, but like the best supernatural horror, it also employs a psychological aspect that keeps both the characters and the viewers off-balance.
Oculus also gives you characters to care about – another rarity in too much modern genre fare. The story is told in two timelines, past and present, and director Mike Flanagan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) is able to confidently and easily show us how a childhood tragedy has permanently damaged the two siblings – Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) — at the center of the story and make them instantly sympathetic. While their actions as adults are questionable, they are clearly driven by the characters themselves and not based solely on the needs of the plot, which usually results in the protagonists acting or seeming stupid.
As the story unfolds, Kaylie is picking up Tim from the institution to which he’s been committed for 10 years following the violent deaths of their parents (played in flashbacks by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane). Kaylie brings Tim back to their old house, where we discover that she is convinced – after all this time – that an antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass is responsible for their parents’ demise. The Glass, it seems, is home to an evil, nameless entity that has been destroying lives and families for years. Tim, however, isn’t buying it – at least initially – using all the tools he’s learned in therapy to battle back against his sister’s bizarre assertions.
Kaylie, unfortunately, has used her job as an auction buyer to bring the Glass back into their possession, a decade after it first came into their lives and, in her view, ruined them. She has rigged the room in which the Glass resides with cameras and monitoring devices to capture the mirror in action and prove what it is capable of – while also setting a booby trap to destroy it if things go south. But the mirror has other plans, and soon Kaylie and Tim are caught in the grip of a malevolent power that they may be unable to contain or defeat.
Flanagan knows that the best horror is based not on jump scares (although he deploys those sparingly and effectively) but atmosphere, dread and the unseen. He’s helped by his tremendously game and strong cast. Cochrane and Sackhoff chillingly demonstrate how the mirror corrupts them in the flashback sequences. Doctor Who veteran Gillan is superb as the tightly wound and obsessive Kaylie and Thwaites brings intelligence and a dawning terror to Tim when he realizes that all his treatment has been essentially for nothing (the children who play the younger versions of Kaylie and Tim, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, are excellent).
Flanagan’s real expertise comes in the film’s second half, as he almost seamlessly flips back and forth between the past and the present in a cascade of brilliantly staged sequences (the director also edited the film himself). The adult Kaylie may walk through a door and the younger one enters the room; as the shifts between past and present increase in speed and frequency, the results are truly disorienting. Both the characters and the viewers are unsure of where they are in time and space, a feat often achieved in literary horror but rarely captured so well on the screen.
There are echoes of films like The Shining and The Innocents here, but the dynamics of the plot are still fresh enough to keep Oculus from being outright derivative. Most refreshing of all is Flanagan’s refusal to explain what the mirror is, or what exactly it houses: the Lasser Glass just exists, and the lack of an origin story or detailed exposition of whatever resides inside it makes it that much more enigmatic and terrifying (yes, a haunted mirror can be both, amazingly enough). Too many horror films over-explain themselves these days, usually in service of laying the groundwork for a sequel or franchise (I’m looking at you, Sinister and Insidious), and while I fervently hope that Oculus is successful, I also do not look forward to further films giving us the Lasser Glass’s origins in any more depth than we have now.
Great horror is about the past encroaching on the present, often with tragic results. It is safe to say that things don’t go well for Kaylie and Tim, who are both ultimately unable to shake off the horrific history of their family. But things have gone very well here for Flanagan, whose previous films were all little-seen, micro-budget indies. With Oculus, he has crafted a well-written, excellently-acted, moodily shot and expertly edited film that crackles with intensity and chills, doesn’t waste a minute of screen time and feels like a satisfyingly unsettling and frightening experience. It’s the finest horror movie I’ve seen in a few years, and I hope there’s more to come.