Oculus is one of the damn scariest movies in years.
I am a bit of a contradiction when it comes to horror movies. I have always loved them, going all the way back to when I was far too young to be watching them. I was endlessly fascinated by the nightmarish imagery the genre could provide, and would often tease myself by perusing the horror section at my local video store. At the same time, however, I’m a bit of a ninny when it comes to actually seeing horror movies. Most horror films – and even the most staunch of gorehounds can agree – are pretty lame and often not at all scary. Most audiences go to horror movies to be thrilled, and not necessarily to be scared. Occasionally, you’ll find something that’s at least visually striking (think of, say, the Insidious movies), and there are plenty of movies to offer up numerous Boo-Gotcha jumpscares (the most notable feature of the found footage genre), but most don’t reach very deep when it comes to actual, unnerving scares.
Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is a gorgeously chaotic, eerie, and downright frightening horror film. I saw a late night screening of it, which was, I feel, a mistake. Its effects still linger. It’s more than just a taut thriller (which it is), a well-made movie (which it most certainly is), or a clever premise (which it has). It’s scary. And that’s not something I can say too often.
Oculus takes place in two time frames. In the present, a brother and sister, Tim and Kaylie (Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan), have reunited after his recent stint in a mental hospital. He is finally back on his feet after years of therapy, but she is obsessed with acquiring and recording a particular mirror that they encountered in a childhood home, a mirror which may be haunted, and can drive people insane. Kaylie has set up cameras and alarms and has taken every precaution to finally record the mirror’s evil and prove to the world that her brother did not deserve to go to the hospital all those years ago. Tim, meanwhile, is trying to explain to Kaylie that she herself may be going a little loopy, and that what they experienced was run-of-the-mill family violence.
Meanwhile, eleven years ago, Tim and Kaylie (excellent child actors Garrett Ryan Ewald and Annalise Basso) experience the slow dissolution of their family, perhaps at the hands of the haunted mirror in question, recently hung on the wall of their new home. Eventually, dad (Rory Cochran) begins brandishing a gun, whispering to a mysterious woman who may or may not be living in his office, while mom (Katee Sackhoff) begins freaking out, grunting and eating glass.
Oculus shifts seamlessly between the past and the present, allowing both stories to overlap and parallel each other in a staggeringly effective fashion. And since the haunted mirror may be projecting hallucinations into the minds of our leads in both time frames, we can never be sure as to what’s real, folding the two stories together into an smooth and terrifyingly insane madhouse of relived trauma. And while that may sound like it’s chaotic and confusing, director Flanagan somehow makes it all clear. Without too much tiresome exposition, we seem to know the rules of the mirror. And, since we’re not distracted by the technicals, we can sit back and get our wits scared out of us by the violence, darkness, and ghostly imagery.
The recent wave of high-profile cinematic ghost stories has been a mixed bag. Oculus is one of the best of this wave.
Rating: 4 Burritos
See Clarke’s interviews with the cast and Flanagan by clicking here.