Last year “The Conjuring” showed that there was still room for an old-fashioned horror movie in the marketplace—one that depended on tension and suggestion more than blood and gore. The slow-burning supernatural thriller “Oculus” aims for the same sort of appeal—going “boo!” rather than tossing out splatters of red and brain tissue—and to a considerable extent it succeeds. But its narrative convolutions, mixing past with present and reality with illusion, may well prove too taxing for today’s audiences, accustomed as they are to being spoon-fed everything in a crisp, snappy style that requires little concentration.
The narrative is really quite a simple one. Eleven years ago, twelve-year old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and her ten-year old brother Tim (Garrett Ryan) suffered through a terrifying ordeal. They moved into a new house with their parents Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie (Katee Sackhoff), but among the furniture was an antique mirror installed in Alan’s den. It proved to be a demonically hungry artifact that literally sucked the life out of plants and animals and seduced humans with visions and hallucinations, ultimately absorbing their spirits after arranging for them to die. In short order Marie and Alan both went insane and ended up dead. Kaylie was shuffled off into a succession of foster homes, while Tim was sent into a psychiatric institute for extended treatment.
Now the twenty-one year old Tim (Brenton Thwaites), pronounced cured by his therapist (Miguel Sandoval), is released, only to find that Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has tracked down the mirror and wants his help in proving its malevolence before destroying it. Though he’s been convinced through his therapy that the wild story about the mirror he believed as a child was invention and that Alan was simply a murderer, he reluctantly accompanies Kaylie to their old house, where she’s brought the mirror she’s “borrowed” from the auction house where she works beside her fiancé (James Lafferty). She’s installed a host of devices to protect them against harm while a battery of cameras records what happens overnight. But as you might expect, all her precautions are sorely tested by the malignant glass’s power to compel people to see what it wants them to see.
What follows is a juxtaposition of what Kaylie and Tim experienced as children as their parents went berserk and repeatedly threatened them, and the fever dreams the mirror implants in their minds during their prolonged surveillance. The two time frames sometimes merge as the twenty-year olds watch their younger selves repeating the fatal events of a decade earlier. At times it’s impossible to tell whether what you’re seeing is actually happening, since the film often portrays things from the perspective of one of the siblings, who might—or might not—be hallucinating. And literally hanging over their heads is an anvil that Kaylie has hung on the ceiling, which at the flick of a switch can come hurtling down into the mirror to smash it, even though it seems to be indestructible.
It’s certainly possible to question whether “Oculus” plays entirely fair with the audience, since the script by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard allows for things we’ve seen to be abruptly reversed as though they’d never happened. And there are other elements that might bother viewers. The origin of the mirror’s demonic character is never explained. The apparition that emanates from it looks awfully similar to the wraiths familiar from Japanese ghost movies. And the ending is bound to disappoint those looking for a satisfying resolution.
But overall there’s a sense of conviction to the film that carries one along. Flanagan’s direction is assured, and his editing is crisp. The physical production (with production design by Russell Barnes, art direction by Elizabeth Boller and set decoration by Michelle Marchand) is convincingly ordinary. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography works to create a genuinely spooky atmosphere. And the Newton Brothers’ score, enhanced by Stephen Hl. Flick’s sound design, employs some throbbing motifs to chilling effect.
The performances are strong as well. Cochrane and Sackhoff are fine as the increasingly unhinged parents, but it’s the youngsters who really carry the film. Basso and Ryan are compelling as the kids in jeopardy, and while Gillan has a the somewhat thankless task of playing Kaylie as rigid and unyielding pretty much throughout, Thwaites is a genuine find, conveying Tim’s emotional turmoil with considerable depth.
One can imagine “Oculus” being made as a chintzy SyFy Network quickie, but as realized here, it’s uneven but genuinely eerie and unsettling, clever in its use of “gotcha” moments and sparing in its employment of blood—a nice change from the slice-and-dice carnage that’s become the regular fare of today’s horror genre.