Directed by Mike Flanagan, Oculus is that rarest of breeds: a modern horror movie that doesn’t push things too far. The 2013 release isn’t just a springboard for a franchise and it’s not merely filled with jump scares and things that go bump in the night. It contends with a truly psychological matter and deals with the stories we tell when our minds can’t handle the rumble of reality.
Oculus is based on Flanagan’s short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, which involved a single actor operating in a single setting with a mirror. Flanagan was pressed to turn his short into a “found footage” horror picture, but he refused and eventually Oculus was born as a full length theatrical release.
The picture opens with Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) released from a psychiatric hospital. He meets with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who hasn’t shared the benefit of treatment and had to make her own sense of past tragedy.
Kaylie believes that the mirror hanging in her father’s (Rory Cochrane) office is somehow responsible, while Tim has discovered that his father was responsible for the murder of his mother (Katee Sackhoff) and any ensuing trauma. Kaylie sets up an elaborate sting operation to determine the true nature of the mirror, dragging Tim along for the ride.
This requires a return to the scene of the old house, which is where most of Oculus takes place. The movie flickers between flashbacks, showing young Tim (Garrett Ryan) and Kaylie (Annalise Basso) settling into the new home in 2002 and contending with rising stress levels and other matters beyond their understanding.
Indeed, this lack of understanding – typical of a child trying to comprehend things like alcoholism and domestic violence – leads to how Tim and Kaylie construe the events as adults. The mirror came to represent so much, especially as it was tied to so many harrowing events comprising the (literal) breakdown of the family unit.
Tim believes that Kaylie blames the ostensibly omnipresent mirror for what happened. He sees her obsession as a way of coping. This is played brilliantly, especially as there are ordinary explanations for everything that happened.
Theoretically, Oculus could provide both a psychological and a supernatural explanation for what happened to Kaylie and Tim. That’s part of its appeal. The movie is indistinct because it has the confidence to stand with the indistinct beliefs of its characters. It doesn’t have to lean on bump-in-the-night scares. There’s more than enough trepidation inside the human mind.
And one only has to consider how many objects, inanimate or otherwise, are routinely blamed for human failings. Superstitions run rampant, often excusing the most dreadful of circumstances because people refuse to face the full breadth of reality. It’s easier to blame the mirror than to blame father. It’s heartening to suggest that the annihilation of an inert object solves the problems of the past.
Flanagan sinks into this psychological realm with a measured and patient approach. He doesn’t reveal his cards all at once. He plays with perspective, astutely using his flashbacks to illuminate and/or obscure the story where necessary. Sometimes adult Tim and Kaylie join their younger selves in hiding or running from alleged evils.
Cinematographer Michael Fimognari does a great job sinking the audience into the mindset of the characters. He introduces Kaylie with a perfectly framed shot as her ponytail swings in childlike fashion. She’s trapped somewhere. She’s still living in the past somehow, despite any contemporary allegiances. Nothing in her adult life feels quite right, including her engagement to Michael (James Lafferty).
Like the awesome 2014 horror film It Follows, Oculus is concerned with “the inexorable, unplumbed unknown” and “the abyss we fling ourselves into when we can’t find meaning.” Kaylie’s life is one of boundless obsession and the truth is in there somewhere. Was the mirror responsible? Maybe. Was it involved somehow? Oh hell yes.