Haunted house films have become so common in mainstream horror that they have their own sub-genre, but the notion of a haunted mirror is new to the world of cinematic terror.
“Oculus” is a fantastic example of a smart haunted house movie. It presents a chilling scenario that adds new aspects to the genre while also paying homage to the familiar tropes that serve as the foundation of horror flicks. The film uses playful narrative to create a tense atmosphere that features clever scares at every moment.
After Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution after supposedly killing his father, he reunites with his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who is determined to prove that he wasn’t responsible for the crime. She tracks down an ancient mirror, whose sinister power tormented their family when they were children by possessing their parents, and sets up an elaborate experiment to reveal the evil force hidden in the mirror and destroy it.
“Oculus” blends two effective ghost stories into one stellar, disorienting narrative. One part of the film deals with the original haunting of the mirror, when the protagonists were children, and how it eventually obliterated the family’s sanity. The other part plays out like a psychological chess game between the mirror’s evil persona and the adult-version heroes.
The tale of the first haunting works as a nod to the terror that fueled ghost films such as “The Amityville Horror.” Possession and the mental disintegration of an unlucky family are familiar ground for producer Jason Blum, who has lent his name to similar films, such as “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity.” Watching the parents suffer under the mirror’s power while their children squirm in terror is suspenseful and agonizingly tense, and the film’s remarkable pacing maximizes the horrific effects of the deadly spirits lurking in the home.
The other half of the film is dedicated to Tim and Kaylie’s attempts to silence the entity inside the mirror. It’s entertaining to watch Kaylie’s master plan and the lengths that she goes to in order to capture any suspicious activity.
But the cleverness of the movie comes from the intelligence of the ghosts, evident during the trippy sequences in which both siblings fall victim to the mirror’s influence and lose the ability to separate illusion from reality. Director Mike Flanagan employs seamless editing skills, blending the past and present together beautifully. The film’s climactic scenes, where both versions of the protagonists fight off the apparitions of the mirror simultaneously, are perfectly balanced.
Thwaites and Gillan share excellent chemistry throughout the film. While Thwaites is great as a mentally disturbed man who just wants his life put back together, the real star is Gillan, the obsessed sister. Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso, who play the young versions of Tim and Kaylie, portray terrified children but give their characters traces of strength when they attempt to destroy the mirror and promise each other to not rest until it’s defeated.
“Oculus” is one of the smartest, most frightening horror films made in recent years. It uses manipulation in lieu of cheap jump scares to create genuine psychological terror, with its unsettling shifts in time and perspective enhancing its haunted house premise. By mixing horror genres and employing innovative ideas, “Oculus” offers chilling thrills and a creative story that makes it as a shining example of how to create terror through great characters and a mysterious, horrifying entity.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Runtime: 105 Minutes