2014 - 104 minutes
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan
The devious mirror of Oculus first appeared in a 2006 short film from director Mike Flanagan, who also helms the feature-length version. While this movie about haunted glass is better than one might expect based on the premise, it does feel like a short form subject stretched beyond the point of viability. You can only watch so many trips down darkened halls, close-ups of dead plants, and glowing-eyed ghosts before they feel a little repetitive. Thankfully, spooky reflections are used efficiently.
Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released after 11 years in an institution and is immediately confronted by older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). The no-nonsense redhead ditches the pleasantries, and reminds Tim they made a pact to do something once he got out. Something that has to do with avenging the death of their parents Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and Alan (Rory Cochrane), which also led to Tim’s stint at the hospital.
Kaylie’s certain their parents were killed by a cursed mirror, which she hunts down via her job at an auction house. I guess it was a stroke of luck she found it a day before Tim was released. The Lasser Glass, complete with ornate frame carved from “a single piece of Bavarian black cedar,” hung in Alan’s office in the old family home and Kaylie returns it to the scene of the crimes to destroy it. Outfitted with video cameras, laptops, alarm clocks, and a bevy of lights, Kaylie is determined to draw out the evil spirit(s) that haunt the mirror and cleanse the cursed object. Tim, conditioned by the psych ward, tries to rationalize what happened all those years ago and searches for a more logical explanation for their distress.
Gillan gives a controlled, engrossing performance that carries Oculus through the first two acts. Her drill-sergeant-like approach when plowing through the history of the Lasser Glass and its victims is informative and precise, even if not convincing to Tim, who chalks everything up to coincidence. Thankfully, this rattling off of expositional history doesn’t come with a convoluted backstory that involves a witch placing a curse on the mirror, or a trapped damned soul, or some other contrivance. It makes the proceedings feel immediate and tension-filled, unlike the current state of the Paranormal Activity franchise, which explains the scary right out of their unearthly monsters. Kylie even devises a practical fail-safe to destroy the dastardly mirror – a weighted anchor set to drop at precisely the right moment.
Once the particulars are dispensed with, Flanagan elegantly melds the present with the past, going back and forth from Kaylie and Tim’s current experiment to 11 years prior when their younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who both play quietly traumatized very well) first encounter the Lasser Glass. There’s smoothness in the transitioning timeline that informs more often than it confuses. Sackhoff and Cochran are both great as the parents, grounding their respective mirror-driven meltdowns with a convincing sense of believable dread.
Things crack a bit when the mirror develops convenient powers whenever needed to mess with the family. It can control electricity, fake cell phone calls, make you hallucinate that you’re watching a doppelganger, make dogs disappear, and produce the spirits of its former victims – not to do any real harm, just to provide a few well-timed jump scares. When the pace finally picks up and we jump habitually between past and present it feels like a matter of necessity rather than revelation. The pulsating, bass-driven score isn’t enough to release the tension that was so effectively built up early, and neither are the quick swerves before the credits roll. They're just more expedient gotchas that aren’t as shocking as they should be. After establishing itself as an unnerving mood piece early, and despite some unexpected turns near the end, Oculus limps to a conclusion that’s more dutiful than dismaying.