It starts with a mirror.
What commences seems to be your typical dark, mind-numbing horror film featuring some attractive lead actress and a few grotesque CGI ghosts. But Oculus is instead a brave take on a redundant topic: it takes the frightening aspects of mirrors and parallel worlds and makes it something more. Director Mike Flanagan takes us on a journey inside our own minds, as, throughout this organized mess of a film, we struggle to define what is actually happening, and what only seems to be happening.
Think of the 2008 film Mirrors mixed with a bit Inception, and you have Oculus. The movie flips back and forth between the present and 11 years ago, when Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) are first introduced to the ancient mirror that haunts them into seeking revenge. Kaylie, the older sibling, strongly believes in the power the mirror holds over those who look into it, while her brother, who has spent a great number of years seeking mental help, is convinced they’d imagined the entire thing as children.
She’s come up with a plan to somehow rid the demonic presence inside the mirror: it involves cameras, a swinging blade, and a small nameless Boston Terrier. She hopes to capture everything on tape, so at least others can witness the mirror’s true evil, as she knows well enough that she will probably die for the cause.
Though slow to start, about 40 minutes in things start to really pick up: the flashbacks aid viewers in piecing everything together, and we witness the Russell family’s gradual descent into madness. And yes, I’ll admit it: I spent the second half peeking through my fingers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking–all of this could have been avoided if Kaylie and Tim Russell had just left the darn thing alone. But that’s no fun, right? Oculus offers a commendable variety of scary figures, a decent cast, and enough mystery to rightfully accompany the throbbing music that pulses through the tenser scenes. And even though we don’t agree with most of the main characters’ decisions–but when do we ever, in these films?–we’re still enticed by what will happen next. (Make sure to pay attention to Thwaites; he stars in the upcoming 2014 film, The Giver!)
Each scene in the second half is chaotic: while younger Kaylie is chased through the house by her savage beast of a mother, grown-up Kaylie accidentally stabs her partner in the neck; when grown-up Tim runs outside to call for help, he realizes he’d never left the house in the first place. We feel every pumping heartbeat and footstep of these characters as we, along with them, struggle to define what is real and what’s not.
Oculus ends quite abruptly, but does manage to come full circle, which in a sense is probably what producers intended. Either that, or maybe Flanagan was just making room for a sequel. I left feeling quite uneasy–it wasn’t so much the scary faces and loud noises that made this film noteworthy, but the thoughts it introduced.
It’s no overly exceptional contribution to the wide world of horror films, but it sure gives viewers something to think about. Not to mention, it leaves that anxious feeling in our stomachs and makes us never want to look directly at our reflections again. Score: 8/10.
Nataly Capote/A&E Editor