Horror can definitely be a rough game. Some audiences crave a bone-chilling story that will stick with them, while others are perfectly satisfied with buckets of gore and possibly some humorous references from the genre's past. Well, a lot of the same old tricks have become tired. However, when some of these horror filmmakers try to change it up, some of the premises can sound a bit silly. This is the case when it comes to director Mike Flanagan's Oculus. Just hearing the synopsis by itself, the plot comes across as being a ridiculous genre piece that sounds like it could be a complete disaster. As the old saying goes, "Don't judge a book by its cover." If you're one of those moviegoers who are looking for a truly haunting plot that will get under your skin, then you have found the picture for you.
Many years after a horrible tragedy took place in their family home, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released back into society. Immediately after leaving, he meets up with his older sister, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), who wishes to exonerate her brother of his murder conviction. She has an experiment planned that will prove that the murder was actually caused by a supernatural mirror that has been causing ill effects over many decades as it moves from one location to the next. However, her ultimate goal is to destroy the mirror that caused them so many years of pain and suffering.
Oculus makes different decisions than one would imagine from the very start. In any other horror flick, the audience would be spoon fed every detail of what happened to Tim and Kaylie as children that put them in the situation that they're in. However, writers Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard remain ambiguous for quite some time. In fact, we aren't even entirely sure if the mirror is actually supernatural, as they each recount what they remember from their childhood. Instead of just telling us everything that happened, the filmmakers prefer to show us. There is a series of flashbacks throughout the running time, as we see how this mirror haunts our leads in their past, present, and perhaps even their future. This could have easily turned into a mess of different sequences attempting to come together. However, everything remains consistently cohesive throughout the running time. The tension continues to build, as we learn more about the mirror and this family's experiences with its supernatural powers. Both stories are synced together, making for two build-ups and two fairly large payoffs.
Instead of introducing us to a couple of weak characters who are going to get picked off one by one, Kaylie's ability to fight exceeds expectations. She refuses to allow this mirror to win, even as it continues to play tricks on her sense of reality. She continues to pass everything off as a "nice trick," as she keeps getting up to fight it once again. Kaylie has set alarms and numerous precautions, so that the mirror can't play as many of these tricks. It's rare to find a horror film where our characters are so prepared to face their demons, but they just might be underestimating the supernatural abilities of this mirror. You might be thinking, why don't they just break it and get it over with? Well, it has the ability to protect itself from somebody simply bashing it in. This might sound a bit ridiculous, but the filmmakers deliver this material is a marvelous way that makes what could have been a cliché-filled mess into a fresh horror venture that had me captivated from start to finish.
Keeping the genre in mind, you might be wondering how scary it is. The more of these films you watch, the more desensitized that you become to getting scared. However, Oculus actually utilizes more subtle ways of getting under our skin. The tone of these scares are actually quite similar to that of The Ring. The build-up to these moments surely have elements of slow-burn horror, as it doesn't feed into the typical scares that audiences will be expecting. With that in mind, Oculus is more eerie and triply than it is actually scary. This motion picture didn't have me sleeping with my light on, but it definitely had the hair on the back of my neck standing up during several scenes. "Jump scares" have become the primary way to cause commotion in the cinemas, but Flanagan makes that a rarity here. While there are a few of them, they aren't the primary focus. There's always so much going on, you won't have the time for them to get on your nerves.
One of the most powerful effects here is how the film places the audience into this situation alongside the lead characters. While kudos are due to the filmmakers, the actors deserve quite a bit of recognition for this, as well. Unfortunately, audiences generally aren't very surprised when a horror film has bad acting. However, Oculus sports a fairly impressive cast that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to achieve. Karen Gillan is incredibly effective in the role of Kaylie Russell. Not only is she believable, but she truly pulls us into this world where we are in danger from perceptions created by a supernatural mirror. She makes this female lead a strong one that we can easily root for. Brenton Thwaites is a strong addition as her younger brother, Tim Russell. He's meant to represent our sense of doubt through the first act, as he tries to create some sense of reason for why everything happened. When Oculus moves back in time, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan play the same characters as children. Young actors can ruin a perfectly good scene if they aren't able to deliver realistic performances. Both Basso and Ryan manage to surprise us, as their connection feels so real. They express fear in a raw way, as they carry their sections of the picture with ease.
Even though Oculus is rated R, it didn't receive this restricted rating due to an extreme amount of violent or gore. While there is a little bit of blood shown through a few sequences, this isn't a slasher flick. However, it utilizes a variety of gags. Some are meant to leave you disgusted, while others are meant to involve us in this surreal reality that the mirror has our leads caught in. Each one of them looks incredibly realistic. The real aspect to applaud here is the atmosphere that has been achieved, all thanks to a strong use of cinematography and editing that creates an effectively creepy atmosphere. With the constant switching between the past and the present, the editing needs to be good in order to keep us in the story. Fortunately, each transition is seamless, as it never takes a single misstep when it comes to moving between two different years entirely. This is only elevated by the score that adds an extra dimension to this horror film that just loves to surprise us.
This is a motion picture about our sense of reality as we see it through the mirrors around us. Oculus is an eerie film that defies expectations and delivers on both its scares and its intelligent sense of storytelling. The transitions between the past and the present are seamless, making for a convincing theatrical experience. Oculus is a strong horror film that centers around the themes of family, our distorted sense of self, and how those distortions of reality come to haunt us. Horror seems to be making a comeback, so if you have ever enjoyed the genre, now is the time to get back into it. Highly recommended!