Oculus is a unique horror film in terms of how it finds originality through style and execution within the familiar, conventional ghost story set-up that far too many of its kind seem to indulge. A year later I stand behind my original claim that The Conjuring is the Citizen Kane of haunted house movies, so director Mike Flanagan more than had his work cut out for him with Oculus, and he succeeded admirably.
Oculus is less a haunted house film than a cursed object film, its titular mirror being passed down through the generations to new owners who always seem to wind up dead. It reminds me of one of my favorite television shows growing up, Friday The 13th, which quickly obliterated any feelings of animosity at having nothing to do with the film franchise of the same name, by presenting a compelling and imaginative document of a new cursed object each week. Likewise Oculus is a self-contained story of one such family who possessed the deadly mirror; or did it possess them?
The film takes a little while to get going, but not because it drags its feet, because Flanagan is legitimately setting up a complex story. Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) surprises her brother Tim after his release from a psychiatric institution, where he stayed since being responsible for their father’s murder, with the haunted mirror that she believes was really responsible for what happened to their parents, and a plan to destroy the evil inside it once and for all. She has done all the research, and during a quick and ingenious way Flanagan uses to sneak in backstory, Karen imparts the mirror’s sordid and questionable history to Tim in hopes that he will help her in destroying it. Naturally Tim believes it’s all in her mind, and in between moments of her intensely trying to persuade him, Flanagan alternates between Karen’s house full of booby traps and flashbacks to what happened a decade ago, when they moved into the house with their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) and first acquired the mirror.
Without giving too much away, the genius of Oculus is the way it subverts expectations that these flashbacks will quickly resolve themselves, and that their sole purpose is to impart necessary information for the story to evolve. Instead Flanagan deftly orchestrates a back and forth in time tradeoff which begins to speed up and overlap as the film reaches its inexorable conclusion. Soon it becomes apparent that the film’s execution IS its story, and how things happen is more important than what happens, which is certainly rare for a multiplex horror film these days. Of course there are a fair amount of jump scares, which are surprisingly scary, and the second act tends to drag just prior to its speedy race towards the end as the audience is left to flounder in a seemingly aimless story. But I think it will stand up nicely upon rewatch, benefitting from already knowing its agenda.
Karen Gillan is great as Kaylie, she has a real screen presence and creates a memorable, relatable, intelligent heroine which is always welcome in a horror film. Katee Sackhoff is of course Katee Sackhoff, but I have yet to encounter a time when that’s a bad thing. Rory Cochrane and Brenton Thwaites don’t fare quite as well, with the latter failing miserably at giving us anything more than a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face the entire time. The film’s conclusion could have greatly benefitted from a better actor. But the real star of the show is Flanagan, who, like James Wan last year, has crafted a horror film with purpose, executing it with style, panache, and a keen understanding of the medium. It might not be perfect but it’s a great model for what I wish there was far more of in today’s cinemas.
The Verdict: Rave