Oculus – Reviewed // Simon Duckett
Dir: Mike Flanagan
With: Karen Gillan
Horror films in recent years have often relied on splatter and gore to revolt rather than actually horrify their audiences. One or two, however, have attempted hold their audiences with a slowly mounting sense of dread in apparently ordinary domestic situations such as Insidious and Sinister and with the superbly engineered Oculus we have a third.
The story begins, appropriately enough, in St Aidan’s mental institution where Tim Russell (Thwaites) is about to be released having been detained following a horrific family incident ten years earlier. He is met by his sister Kaylie (Gillan) who has tracked down a mysterious mirror which may or may not be haunted. She wants to conduct an experiment at their old house to prove that her brother was not responsible for the previous events and has rigged up cameras and sensors to record the happenings, as well as a boat anchor and pulley system with which she ultimately plans to kill the mirror. We very soon learn that she is no scream queen, almost taunting it as it plays with her perception whilst she arranges to have it hijacked from the store room of the auction house where she works.
Meanwhile we flash back 11 years to the time of the incident and learn that things aren’t so good between Mum and Dad. This could be because of the mirror or it could be that Kaylie is delusional whilst her brother has come to terms with the past as a result of his treatment in hospital. Or is it he, in fact, who has been brainwashed? This sort of sliding backwards and forwards is, um, mirrored in the narrative which moves between dreams and reality, past and present and features brother and sister as children as well as adults.
Kaylie convinces her brother to stick around as she convincingly explains to camera the rationale behind her procedures and her meticulous research into the history of the mirror. Events get twisted as the malevolent presence tampers with time and memory.
What adds to the tension is the focus on the earlier period and the time spent on building up the relationship between the family members, particularly the father and mother (Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, both superb) when he becomes increasingly distant in a sinister echo of The Shining. The colours in the house are muted and the interior design modern thereby avoiding the ‘creepy old house’ cliché; that the house IS creepy is down to the clever pacing of the story, the lighting and the sinuous camera movements.
Bringing to mind the classic 1945 portmanteau horror film, Dead of Night, featuring a story about a woman who bought her husband a haunted mirror that proceeded to take him over and turn him into something horrible, this film leaves you similarly unsettled. I was the last person to leave the screening I attended and I don’t mind admitting I was looking over my shoulder as I left.