'Oculus' Review: Character-Driven Horror Film Frightens
Oculus, the latest chill-fest by director Mike Flanagan, makes the malevolent force an antique mirror – one that seduces, possesses and controls with the victim being none the wiser.
When Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) were kids, they moved into a new house, where their father (Rory Cochrane) set up a home office with the mirror among the decorations. Over the weeks, the flowers wilted, the dog’s whine grew stronger, it seemed more and more likely that their father was carrying on an affair and their mother (Katee Sackhoff) was losing her sanity. The build up is palpable.
In the present, roughly 10 years after they first encountered the mirror’s power, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has earned his release from a mental institution. Finally, he could tell his doctors that the haunting he saw was mere fiction, a coping mechanism. But, when Kaylie (Karen Gillan) comes to pick him up, she gets straight to their childhood promise of destroying the mirror that destroyed their family and their lives.
After fooling her coworkers at an auction house – including her boyfriend Michael (James Lafferty) – Kaylie brings the mirror back to the vacant house with Tim’s help. She has cameras, heat sensors, alarm clocks and anything else she feels she might need in order to prove the existence of the spirit, avoid it’s influence and remove its power.
Throughout the film, flashbacks are used to offer greater insight into what happened in the house when they were kids. The frights are real – as when they find their disfigured mother chained up in her bedroom – but the real scare is the inability to know if Tim and Kaylie know what they’re doing. They are, in many ways, like unreliable narrators in a book. They might think they’re outside calling for help – but they could actually be slouched up inside the front door within the spirit’s “radius of influence.”
Adding to Oculus’ appeal is its decidedly character-driven narrative. This isn’t a scary movie with the near-constant sound of a door creaking or some ghost trying to bang its way out of a cupboard. The focus, in large part, is on the psyche of two adult siblings who’re still struggling to come to terms with what happened to them in their childhood and trying to outsmart the force this time around. In the end, it’s a mind game in which the cost of losing could be another life.