Oculus is a supernatural horror film, directed by Mike Flanagan, which premiered in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival before receiving a worldwide release in early 2014. It tells the story of a young woman who is convinced an antique mirror is the real cause of the death and misery she and her family have suffered over the years and her attempt to destroy it. I must admit, this synopsis really did little to excite me. Haunted mirrors? That is hardly original. So with expectation at a low, I started the film and must say I was pleasantly surprised.
The main events in the film are told over two different timelines, present day and over a decade earlier. They are actually like two separate plots told in tandem with one story telling you of what happened in the past while the other tells you what is happening now.
The past story tells of Alan Russell, a software engineer played by Rory Cochrane, who moves into a new house with his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff), 10-year-old son Tim (Garrett Ryan), and 12-year-old daughter Kaylie (Annalise Basso). Alan purchases an antique mirror to decorate his office but unsurprisingly that mirror is haunted and causes visions and hallucinations in both parents. Marie sees her own body decaying, while Alan is seduced by a creepy woman named Marisol, who has mirrors in place of eyes.
Strange things start to happen in the house with all plants dying and the dog going missing while the constant force of the visions being suffered by both parents eventually leads to them completely losing their sanity. As the mother is chained up in a bedroom by the father, for good reason, the father withdraws too and the children seek external help but no one comes to help them and no one believes their stories.
One night, Alan unchains Marie, and both parents attack the children. Marie briefly comes to her senses, only to be shot by Alan. Before Alan kills the children, he also comes round for a second and forces his son Tim to shoot him first. The police arrive, the siblings are separated, and as they are taken away to be dealt, with they make a pact to return one day and destroy the mirror while being watched by the ghosts of their parents from the window of the house.
The present day story starts with Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now in his twenties being discharged from a psychiatric hospital. Kaylie, played by Karen Gillan, meanwhile, has spent most of the last 10 years researching the mirror and documenting the lives and deaths of everyone who’s ever owned it. Kaylie works in an auction house and uses that position to gain access to the mirror which is due to go up for auction soon. She has it sent to their old family home where she places it in a room filled with surveillance cameras, kill switches and other gadgetry all set to timers in case anything happens to them. She is determined to destroy the mirror but wants to prove it is supernatural first to vindicate her family, especially her brother.
Tim and Kaylie meet up as he leaves hospital and Kaylie tries to convince him to come and fulfil their oath but Tim has come to believe there were no supernatural happenings after a decade in hospital. He does eventually go with her but more to disprove her than to help her. They spend most of their evening arguing about who is crazy and who isn’t until supernatural events start taking place like dying plants and hallucinations. These hallucinations lead to more misery and more death for the brother and sister which culminate in Tim pressing the button on the kill switch set to destroy the mirror. Unfortunately in Tim’s hallucination he is alone with it whereas in Kaylie’s, she is talking to her mother through the mirror. In reality, Kaylie is just standing in front of a mirror while Tim presses a button that results in her death, all documented on film. The police arrive; Tim is arrested again and carted off while watched by the ghosts of his parents and now his sister from the window of the house.
For a nice change the film tends to focus a lot more on building tension and a feeling of dread rather than just throwing jumps and gore at you and for the most part this works. There are sections that work less well because of the parallel timelines. For example, the present day story shows that Tim and Kaylie survive their parents madness in the past so when watching the past, you already know the outcome.
There are a fair few gross out moments using some old tricks such as fingernails being ripped off and glass being chewed. Old tricks or not, they are still cringe worthy. Watching young children scared and crying while their parents try to kill them is also always going to make for tense and uncomfortable watching. I think all the actors did a fine job but especially Karen Gillan who played a girl, precariously balanced on the edge and out for revenge, very well indeed.
The real talent in this film though is in the telling of the story and camera work, not the acting and haunted mirror. The twin timelines running together work really well, with a little concentration. Seeing modern day Tim passing his sister from the past while both stories are told at the same time, at points is quite special. Despite the on-going hallucinations and different versions of each child being shown at all different times, the film does not lose itself and pulls everything back into a coherent story.
The soundtrack is fine but at times, it will go unnoticed as you try to focus on what is happening on screen and wonder if it is real, a hallucination, past or present.
The stories about the history of the mirror also add to the overall feeling of dread in the movie with a short burst of tales such as a mother who believed she was putting her two babies to bed but was actually drowning them in a cistern. The mirrors past and future leaves many, many doorways open for prequels and sequels galore so I would not be surprised to see this concept again in a year or two.
A breath of fresh air really with a strong focus on feeling and storytelling instead of cheap jumps, Oculus is nowhere near the scariest horror movie I have seen recently but it does manage to be interesting and capture a feeling of intensity. I really liked the idea and execution of the dual story lines running together and thought the acting was solid all round as well. Well done to the director for trying to be different and not just the latest Paranormal Activity. It will require your attention to keep up with at the beginning as it is a slow, building film and while it is not going to scare seasoned horror watchers much at all, it is well worth a look based on that intricate story.