The idea is both creepy and familiar: A 300-year-old mirror might be the home of an evil spirit that destroys the lives of anyone who owns it.
Oculus, a movie that director Mike Flanagan expanded from a 2006 short film, revolves around just such an antique mirror. But Flanagan’s movie has sense enough to create mild ambiguity about whether a brother and sister are encountering demonic evil or are simply out of their minds.
R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Happily, Flanagan avoids many of the worst genre traps, and if his movie doesn’t quite scale the highest peaks of terror, it can be seen as a legitimate attempt to add heft to a genre in which the currency of imagination too often is squandered on special effects.
Early in the movie, Tim (Benton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution. He’s a young man who experienced a terrible trauma when he was 10.
Upon re-entering the sane world, Tim reunites with his older sister Kaylie, played by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who fame.
Kaylie acquires the mirror that once belonged to her father, and brings Tim to the home where their parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackoff) died. Better to discover the rest in a theater.
Tension arises because Tim, having been prepped by his psychiatrist, thinks everything has a rational explanation. Kaylie, on the other hand, is determined to prove that the mirror was responsible for the violence that became part of her family’s increasingly twisted life.
To make her case, Kaylie sets up cameras in the home where the mayhem occurred. She hopes to capture the evil spirit on tape.
From that point on, Flanagan mixes scenes from the past and present. Vivid flashbacks spring to life as Tim and Kaylie remember their earlier lives.
Flanagan doesn’t entirely eschew gore, but he earns props for leaving some of the horror to our imaginations and for gaining increasing command over the movie’s flashbacks — segments from the past in which Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso play young Tim and Kaylie.
If you’re bothered by seeing children in danger, Oculus may not be the horror movie for you.
The idea of using demonic forces to explain evil can be comforting. Demons put evil outside the human realm, creating an opportunity for supernatural rationalization: “The demon made me do it.”
I’m not sure that Oculus moves far enough away from that sort of thing to make it truly distinctive, but much of the time, it’s headed in the right direction.