It can be a hard thing for a critic to admit, but sometimes we can be wrong. I’m having a hard time remembering a movie I was as wrong about as I was with Oculus, though. When I first watched it several months ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (while I was admittedly exhausted from a huge workload) I dismissed the film as being a barely passable genre lark about a killer mirror with some good shocks that made precious little sense.
Then several weeks ago when I was able to watch the film with a fresh set of eyes several months later (and this time early in the morning instead of at the end of a very long day), I realized that I had Oculus pegged completely wrong. This is a smart, well crafted, and terrifying piece of work that I didn’t give its proper due the first time because I was an idiot for 105 minutes back in September. My bad.
Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has just been released from a mental hospital at the age of 21 after being locked up for shooting and killing his father after claiming his mom (Katee Sackhoff) and dad (Rory Chochrane) went insane. His surviving sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) shows up to pick him up and immediately she forces him to join her on a mad quest that has pretty much consumed her entire life: procuring and destroying a sinister looking mirror that distorted their parents’ perception of reality and turned them into monsters. Initially the recovered Tim is skeptical and Kaylie seems crazy and obsessed, but eventually she’ll be proved right and the past and present of these siblings starts to crash together in dangerous ways.
Writer and director Mike Flanagan (adapting his own 2005 short film on the same general topic to feature length) keeps the story simple and the construction complex. There are really only four main characters and one side character, and the blending of past and present allows for all of them to be richly and cleverly realized. The stakes don’t necessarily come from the mirror being evil and doing a bunch of crazy shit, but from an actual investment in the people around the mirror. As a child, Tim was naive and helpless, but now he wants to get on with his life. Kaylie has always been the stronger of the two siblings, but as an adult she has become so tightly wound that she might be a greater danger than the giant hunk of wood and glass that has somehow inexplicably been unable to be destroyed. Their dad is a workaholic with a darkness that’s waiting to be exploited by whatever dark forces grab hold of him, and their mother has an underlying sadness and suspicion towards her husband waiting to come to a boil.
Flanagan plays with the idea of perception and the skewed nature of self-realization very nicely. These are deeply troubled people who never talk about what’s troubling them. Arguably, the mirror only brought out exaggerated versions of what would have eventually happened to them anyway. There are subtle hints that even if the mirror wasn’t there the parents might have divorced and the kids still would have been maladjusted. It’s a mirror that’s literally and figuratively too powerful, bringing to the surface dark secrets and distorting them to even darker ends.
Also, as the film goes on and the film flashes back and forward in time with increasing regularity between Tim and Kaylie’s increasingly batshit past and present, Flanagan has found wonderful ways of making sure the colliding timelines make sense, deftly arranging them to keep the audience off balance for the final fast paced forty minutes. We know how the past ends for these characters in the opening scene, but the true horror lies in seeing if that past is going to be tragically repeated somehow by the people who most desperately want to stop it. It’s very well edited and paced, with a no bullshit visual style and an aversion to overusing cheap jump scares unless there’s a reason for them to happen. It owes a lot more to classic William Castle flicks than any modern or post-modern horror exercises. It’s delightfully old school on a technical level and daringly modern for a low budget genre film in terms of scripting.
This is also a better cast than these kinds of films normally get. Thwaites stands out above the rest as a wholly sympathetic protagonist that you want to see run as far away from his current situation as possible. It’s nice to see Gillan get a chance to get her crazy on as his type A sister, but she also balances her obsession with a deep love for her brother and an intriguingly played out and ongoing disagreement about what happened when they were kids and their father’s actually culpability for his crazy actions. Their young counterparts in the flashbacks, Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso, do great work to not only give Thwaites and Gillan something to work with, but to also portray them as being relatively the same people these characters were as kids. Sackhoff has arguably the least to do in the housewife role, but she makes the most of her time to bring out a genuine sadness and confusion that’s deeper at first than the other characters initially experience. Cochrane also seems to have a fun time in the Jack Torrance role as a man quickly unravelling and not doing anything to stop it.
If Oculus does stumble, it’s at the end with a sting that can be seen coming from pretty far off, but even then it’s a well played nod to classic horror movies and The Twilight Zone that’s handled really well. What matters most is that Oculus is scary without treating the audience for a horror film like brain dead zombies who just want a gory, lazy geek show with a bunch of loud noises, whip pans, and smash cuts. It’s unpretentious in its aims, but also incredibly smart in terms of how it accomplishes them. I had to watch it a second time to figure that out, but now I certainly wouldn’t mind watching it again.