‘An unsettling psychological chiller, exploring the limits of perception and the pitfalls of obsession’ – MacDara Conroy on haunted mirror horror Oculus
At first glance, Oculus hasn’t got a whole lot going for it. There’s that title, for one, so obtuse and unspecific, giving little indication of the genre (is it a horror or a sci-fi?) let alone the plot. Oculus is Latin for ‘eye’, as it happens (bringing to mind the Pang Brothers’ diverting The Eye, less so its American remake), though the main plot device is actually a looking glass (cue depressing thoughts of Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors). Then there’s the fact that, while the name is conspicuously absent from the credits, the film was first mooted a year ago as one of the latest projects from WWE Studios. That’s right, the wrestling people, responsible for such cinematic delights as The Marine (starring John Cena, the poor man’s Channing Tatum) and See No Evil (which, Glen ‘Kane’ Jacobs as the big baddie aside, was pretty execrable).
The good news is that Oculus is far better than any of the above implies. Adapted by Mike Flanagan from his own 2006 short, the film opens on 21-year-old Tim (Aussie newcomer Brenton Thwaites), released from a psychiatric institution 11 years after a disturbing incident in the family home: both parents killed in grisly fashion, the father shot by Tim himself. Reuniting with his older sister Kaylie (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan, just about pulling off an American accent), Tim’s ready to get his life back on the rails, convinced that his visions of a scary ghost lady and a haunted antique mirror are just figments of his previously fractured mind.
But Kaylie’s about to burst his bubble: the mirror is real! And she holds it responsible for their family’s terrible fate. Now it’s payback time. After ageing out of the foster care system, Kaylie’s manoeuvred herself into a job at an auction house simply to track down the mysterious Lasser Glass, and set her end game in motion. Setting up an impressive array of tech at the scene of the crime – cameras, computers, timers, booby traps and more – the methodical but obsessive Kaylie intends to prove with scientific rigour that the looking glass is indeed haunted, and stop the murderer within it once and for all.
And that’s when things really get interesting, as wandering around the family home triggers Tim’s memories and the story flashes back a decade, following the younger Tim and Kaylie’s struggles against the dark power of the Lasser Glass and its sinister seduction of their parents (Rory Cochrane and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff). The tales, then and now, are told in parallel, flashing back and forth, but slowly intertwining to the point where it’s no longer certain what’s really happening, what’s a memory, and what’s a false image projected by that evil looking glass in the front room. Confusion will reign among the audience, and Whovians in particular may not be best pleased, though that’s almost certainly the intended effect.
With Oculus, Flanagan has expanded his 30-minute short into an unsettling psychological chiller, exploring the limits of perception and the pitfalls of obsession, that gussies up a hackneyed premise with necessary modern touches that ring true for a generation (or two) that’s grown up on Ghostbusters (the Insidious movies did the same, to their eternal credit) while keeping the gore to a minimum along with the jump-scares (this is a filmmaker who knows the importance of economy). No, it’s not original – the off-kilter ‘horrors of bland suburbia’ setting owes much to 2012’s even more bleak and disturbing haunted home shocker Sinister – but it’s crafted with a view to making something surprising and memorable from over-familiar tropes, and I’m pleased to say it works. Oculus opens nationwide on June 13th