‘Oculus’ is one of those rare contemporary horror flicks that derives its scares primarily out of clever plotting and ideas. On top of that, it’s also a rare contemporary haunted house movie that doesn’t balk at an R-rating. In other words, imperfect though it might be, this just might be the horror movie you’ve been waiting for.
Written and directed by Mike Flanagan (who showed significant promise in his micro-budget debut ‘Absentia’ that he delivers on here), the film falls into a very small subgenre of haunted mirror movies. But that’s getting ahead of the plot. Things kick off when Tim (Brenton Thwaits) is picked up from a mental hospital by his sister Kaylie (former ‘Doctor Who’ companion Karen Gillan). He’s been there since he was a child for shooting his father after daddy killed mommy (Katee Sackhoff from ‘Battlestar Galactica’). In the ensuing years, Kaylie has been researching a legendary possessed mirror that she’s convinced possessed her parents. Tim has spent those same years being brainwashed into thinking he made the mirror story up to conceal his parental murdering trauma. Together, the siblings will spend a night alone in the old house where the tragedy took place, along with that creepy old mirror and a collection of cameras. The goal is to prove that the pesky mirror did it all, but you can never rule out insanity in a hallucinogenic haunted horror flick, now can you?
It’s a clever concept, one that pulls influences from plenty of haunted horrors of the past while still managing to emerge as something that feels new. Flanagan’s sense of suspense, dread and unreliable reality is impeccably sharp. (Try to watch the apple bite scene without being duped and cringing.) His film is a scare factory that is all too easy to be seduced and destroyed by. The set-up can be a little rickety, though. Some of the actors aren’t quite up to snuff (though thankfully Gillian and Thwaits carry the film admirably). The biggest derailment early on is Flanagan’s decision to cross cut between the childhood and contemporary timelines. This means that for the first 30-40 minutes, audiences have to sit through two competing horror movie set-ups, each delivered in such a deliberately paced and morose style that seat shifting is inevitable.
Thankfully, everything pays off and comes together in a satisfyingly pants-wetting manner. While sitting through two simultaneous world-building plots can be tedious, that’s all deliberately done for two simultaneous horror climaxes that mirror and connect with each other in fascinating and frightening ways. Timelines are bent, hallucinations mix with reality, and it all peaks with a deliciously ironic twist that would make Rod Serling smirk and reach for a smoke.
‘Oculus’ won’t set records for onscreen gore or blow away cynical horror fans with genre-defying ingenuity. However, it’s so rare to see an old spooky subgenre executed this effectively and intelligently. This is one genuinely creepy flick that’s just as willing to go for the brain as it is the gut to freak out its audience. Keep an eye on this Mike Flanagan character. He seems to be onto something.