After the smartly subversive, but relatively unseen, Absentia writer director Mike Flanagan certainly earned the right to have a crack at the big time. Rather than taking over an already established franchise Flanagan instead has turned his attention to a previous short of his in the form of Oculus and in doing so could potentially have set-up a franchise all of his own.
The film tells a split narrative about the Russell family. In the present daughter Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is determined to prove that an ancient mirror that once belonged to her family is the cause of a series of grisly deaths through the ages. With the aid of her recently released from psychiatric ward brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) the pair get their hands on the mirror, return to the family home and set up all manner of cameras to chronicle the horrors as they unfold. Meanwhile eleven years earlier we see how a young Kaylie and Tim’s father Alan (Rory Cochrane) buys the mirror, sets it up in his office and displays a certain level of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” mentality. His wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff) meanwhile slowly loses her mind before both parents turn on their children. But is the mirror really doing it all or are Kaylie and Tim suffering from a psychotic break?
Oculus builds slow, skipping freely between the two timelines to pull you into the mystery and smartly injecting all manner of questions and theories in your mind. It’s not always original, often feeling heavily influenced by The Shining and The Amityville Horror as the family are gradually torn apart by either psychosis or paranormal activity. But in the final third Flanagan pulls out all the stops to create something smart and chilling.
Merging the two storylines to mess with both the protagonists and our idea of what is really going on is a masterstroke. Sure you can guess the outcome, and you might get it right, but it doesn’t stop the house of horrors and misdirection from keeping a sense of thrills throughout.
Flanagan refuses to resort to full on gore or, as is more the trend in current horrors, cheap jump-scares from loud noises. Instead he achieves a level of sinister unease through smart visuals and clever camera work. The stark, silver glowing eyes of the supposed demons within the mirror are brilliantly scary and never over-used. In the final act he lets loose with an atmospheric inducing lighting system of halogen lamps scattered throughout the house which conjures something both familiar to those ever experiencing a power cut and is endlessly creepy.
The performances are all solid without ever excelling. Gillan continues to prove, after her turn in Guardians Of The Galaxy, that there is life beyond the Tardis of Dr. Who. Her Kaylie is determined and a little wide-eyed twisted. Sackoff brings a nice level of maternal instinct combined with wrought madness. Cochrane does the calmly psychotic thing with ease although never feels anything less than slightly clichéd in his execution. Only Thwaites, with his slightly too good-looking appearance slightly disappoints, rarely injecting the necessary level of unbalanced nature required to make his role that little more ambiguous.
Never hugely original but always inventive Oculus is solid little horror to give you goose bumps this Halloween.