Oculus is a film that separates itself from many of its contemporaries by refusing to play by the expected rules, and by tethering itself to its concept and mythology (undefined as that mythology may be - not a complaint) and avoiding the cheap and easy scares. I'm a horror fiend - I like cheap and easy scares just fine. But when a film comes along that chooses to forgo these easy moments in pursuit of something greater, that's something to take note of. And that is one of the many things that Oculus brings to the table.
Directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia), Oculus tells the story of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites). The film opens with Tim being released from a mental institution upon turning 21, having resided there for treatment after he killed their father eleven years ago. The story Tim told back then was that the evil mirror that hung in his father’s office had made his father (Rory Cochrane) go crazy, murder their mother (Katee Sackhoff), and attack the children. The official version of the story is that the parents were both suffering the stresses of a marriage falling apart, and that the father simply lost it.
Eleven years spent confined and in therapy have taught Tim the more logical, society-approved version of the events that occurred, allowing him to finally get a hold on his delusions and give him the tools to restart his life. Kaylie, on the other hand, remembers the truth. She has spent her time tracking down the mirror, and now that Tim is free, plans to kill the entity residing in it once and for all. But first, proof. She sets up a bit of an experiment in the house where they grew up. Cameras, monitoring equipment and timers will prove to the world that their story is wasn't a delusion or a fabrication and something truly evil resides within the Lasser Glass.
The film’s narrative structure is one of its strongest assets. The story of the events that transpired when these characters were children is told alongside the events of the present day. What happened before is not so much a flashback as it is a concurrent storyline all of its own. The two match pacing and even plot points, until they finally culminate together at the film’s climax.
The editing applied to pull this off is absolutely sublime. The way the past and the present are integrated into a fully cohesive story is nothing short of magic. The transitions are smooth, the shifts are logically-placed, never jarring and always relevant. In lesser hands, it would be easy for this to feel as though you were watching two separate movies simultaneously, but the fusion between the two is perfect.
This storytelling method also contributes nicely to the overall tone of the film, which is one based far more in dread than in outright horror. That’s not to say this is a tame film - it has its grisly moments, to be sure. But so many opportunities for the easy scares are bypassed in the name of setting the mood and in building and overarching sense of the unknown. The Lasser Glass is a mysterious artifact. Kaylie has been able to trace its history and knows a great deal about the fates that befell its previous owners, but little is known about the mirror itself. Let alone the powers that it possesses.
In fact, that is where Oculus really shines - in the way it always keeps you guessing. The
Lasser Glass has the power to enter your mind, so memory and perception are all faulty, even for the audience. There are no real rules at play here, and like Tim and Kaylie, we are at the mercy of the power of the mirror, and its effects are simple, disorienting, and completely unnerving.
The cast is all incredibly solid. If you need more of a reason to get excited about a genre cast that includes Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane, know that they all do a stellar job. If the film suffers at all, it is from a slight pacing problem as the experiment is getting under way. It’s minor, and it does little to derail the story or its impact. I’ve heard complaints that the film meanders a bit in the middle, but had it given itself a little more time to ease into the experiment, I think those issues could have been resolved. Still though – not a big deal.
Much like in Absentia, director Mike Flanagan tied the supernatural occurrences in Oculus with very human and personal issues. This ghostly story of a haunted mirror and the lives that it has affected is also a personal examination of memory, and of confronting the past. We see Tim and Kaylie explore and empty out the dark corners of their childhood to reveal the nature of the events that tore their family apart eleven years ago. It gives the film a very emotional component, as well as characters that the audience can connect with. You are absolutely rooting for these two (both in the past and in the present)
Oculus is a film that dares to let mood and atmosphere take center stage, pushing jump scares aside and allowing the characters and the premise to develop and take the reigns of the story. The unknown nature of the Lasser Glass allows a reality in which nothing can truly be real, and that our senses can't be trusted, leading to a really unsettling, dread-fueled film.