There’s been no shortage of things going bump in the night recently, as the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises continue to scare up tidy profits. Oculus might possess some of the trappings of those movies, but Mike Flanagan’s much-buzzed film puts story first to deliver a truly gripping horror.
On the day that her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the institution in which he spent his childhood, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) tells him that it’s time to make good on the promise they made. She has bought the mirror the mirror that she belives caused their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) and their mother Marie’s (Katee Sackhoff) deaths. She is determined to prove that a supernatural force inhabits it, but after years of therapy Tim needs convincing. It won’t take long…
In many ways, Oculus feels like the best J-horror remake not based on an existing film (apart from being based on Flanagan’s own short films). There’s a pervasive sense of tragedy throughout, as the details of Kaylie and Tim’s tragic past are slowly fed to us through flashbacks and hallucinations, calling to mind the disorientation of The Grudge and the mournful quality of Dark Water.
Oculus’ structure also gives it a sense of urgency. Kaylie knows exactly how dangerous the mirror is and Tim’s clearly afraid of it, even if he won’t admit it. Once the mission gets underway the film never really slows back down and Kaylie’s series of fail-safes and alarms (including a ship’s anchor, some pot plants and an unlucky dog) have us on edge from the get-go.
The mirror’s ability to play with perception makes Kaylie and Tim’s flashbacks as treacherous as their current situation. The mirror from 11 years ago feels just as threatening, while Alan and Marie are just as capable of reaching out and hurting their children.
Flanagan delivers plenty of horrible little shocks courtesy of the mirror’s ability to delude and misdirect, with a couple of moments that will have you putting your hands over your eyes, but Oculus is refreshingly light on cheap jump scares. It’s unsettling enough to have you on edge without resorting to those kinds of tricks.
Crucially, we really care about the characters. At the heart of Oculus is a human tragedy which Kaylie and Tim are forced to relive. As children they went through a horrifying ordeal, and the performances from Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as the 13 year old Kaylie and 10 year old Tim are excellent. In fact, the performances from the entire cast are a huge part of the film’s success. Cochrane keeps Alan’s Jack Torrance transformation the right side of Nicholson by downplaying his growing insanity, while Thwaites makes for a sympathetic and haunted male lead. It’s the two actresses, however, who really impress.
Sackhoff shines as Marie, bringing a warmth and heart to the character who is gradually worn down as all her insecurities and old wounds are exposed. Gillan, meanwhile, is very much the star of the show and gives an excellent lead performance. Her Kaylie is strong and determined, but the erstwhile Doctor Who star knows when to let cracks appear and shows her deep sense of loss and her need for her brother’s support.
By rooting its clever narrative structure in a tragic story, Flanagan has created a horror that pulls on the heartstrings as often as it grabs you by the throat, helped every step of the way by an excellent cast. Nail-biting, mind-bending and very, very scary, Oculus is a must-see.