(dir. Mike Flanagan)
“I’ve seen the devil, and he is me.”
Mirrors can be terrifying. Reflections can reveal things we didn’t know were there, or draw attention to the things we’ve chosen to ignore. Oculus relies on reflection-- the reflection seen in mirrors, self-reflection, and memory. The film follows Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) in their attempt to prove the antique mirror known as Lassar Glass is responsible for making their father murder their mother. Tim, recently released from a mental institution, attempts to rationalize their family’s misfortunes. Kaylie, on the other hand, is convinced, to the point of near-madness that the mirror is to blame. What follows are two storylines: flashbacks to Kaylie and Tim’s childhood and their first encounter with the mirror, and the present timeline where Tim and Kaylie struggle to define what is real as the mirror manipulates their perception.
Oculus is a smart film that relies more on narrative tricks and unsettling imagery than jump scares. Despite its R rating, the film as a whole is not particularly gory, which makes the scenes that are all the more unsettling. The supernatural manifestations in the film are effectively chilling and even if they aren’t particularly different from what’s come before, the apparitions in this film provide a refreshing break from the exorcisms the horror genre has over-exposed over the last few years. For the most part, the story is rooted to a single location, the house where Kaylie and Tim grew up. Despite the external largeness of the house, Flanagan makes the house feel small as the action plays out inside, creating a sense of claustrophobia. This aspect, along with the supernatural-driven madness, makes the story feel reminiscent of The Shining at times (Stephen King’s novel moreso than Stanley Kubrick’s film) though this is merely a point of interest, rather than detraction.
Where the film is most effective in its creation of suspense is its non-linear structure. Oculus blends flashbacks with the present narrative so the present-day characters are frequently encountering younger versions of themselves as they make their way through the house. The two narratives are kept separate enough to follow without creating any lasting confusion. It’s a wildly interesting way to play with the film’s theme of reflection and ensures the few jump scares that are in the film are really earned. It’s a technique that will likely be repeated in future releases.
Despite its originality, the film is not without its flaws. The beginning of the film is slightly hampered by a lengthy exposition on the history of the Lassar Glass and Kaylie’s plan to confront its evil. It’s necessary information but for a film that uses visuals in such interesting way there could have been a more successful way to deliver that information (though a number of the previous Lasser Glass-related incidents described could surely set-up riveting sequels/prequels.) Kaylie’s possible insanity is introduced early in the film, but dropped a little too quickly once the action ramps up. The possibility that the mirror brings out something in people that exists right under the surface seems to be touched upon but isn’t fully explored. Oculus is working with a lot of ideas and while all of them are interesting, some are not exposed to their terrifying potential.
Oculus is one of the more unique horror films in the past few years. Its experiment with narrative form brings something new to the genre. Mike Flanagan is definitely one to watch.