ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Finally released from the mental hospital, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) reunites with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Eleven years ago, Tim shot his father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after witnessing him kill his mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff). The cause of those tragic events were due to a supernatural entity that possessed an antique mirror bought by their father that causes them to see and experience things that may or may not be actually happening.

Present day, Tim wants nothing more than to embrace the therapy that helped him and move on from his past. However, Kaylie’s become convinced that the mirror is possessed. Gathering historical research from previous owners of the antique and setting up her own array of gadgets to document everything, Kaylie is determined to prove that the mirror is responsible for the murder of her father and mother.

Oculus wasn’t exactly high up on my most anticipated list this year. Thanks to film franchises like Saw, Hostel and Paranormal Activity, horror films relied on either the found-footage gimmick or shock value gore. Lately, though, we’ve been seeing a trend with horror films reverting back to genuine, spine-tingling tension with last year’s Mama and The Conjuring. Oculus earns its R-rating, but serves up many more shiver up your spine, hair rising on the back of your neck suspenseful moments certain to entertain and terrify.

Based on a short film by co-writer/director Mike Flanagan titled Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan, this film darts back and forth from present day Kaylie and Tim to their childhood selves 11 years prior, and even intertwining the two. Thanks to Flanagan’s nimble direction and some smart writing touches from co-writer Jeff Howard that are a rarity in horror films today, Oculus serves up quite a mind-twister for the viewers without ever confusing them to the point of taking them out of the film experience. It also passes the “Corner of the Screen” test.

What’s the Corner of the Screen test? It’s when, for at least one moment within the film, you veer your eyes toward the bottom corner of the screen to avoid what may or may not be right around the corner.

Sure, every now and then they fall back on the jump scares, but the best aspect about this film, aside from the solid cast of mostly unknowns, is Mike Flanagan puts us in the shoes of Kaylie and Tim. The film takes its time in getting us to know the two, but once Flanagan gets the ball rolling about 20 minutes in, I personally found myself invested in them. Like I said, this film is a nice mind-twister. Once things start kicking, we begin to question if what Kaylie and Tim are going through are real or not just like they are. It’s rare to get a horror film today that’s really well directed. James Wan did it with The Conjuring. Andrés Muschietti brought a unique visual style to Mama. Flanagan, here, ratchets up the tension and takes us on a thrill ride where we don’t always see what’s coming next.

With the exception of Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, Riddick) and Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, Argo), this features a mostly unknown cast and they all deliver fine performances, particularly Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan Ewald as the younger versions of Kaylie and Tim, as well as Katee Sackhoff, who’s performance in Riddick was pretty bland. They not only manage to work well together, but they also do a great job at making the troubling situations that arise within their home seem real instead of just a bunch of throwaway scenarios. As you find yourself caring more for these characters and what they’re going through, that, in turn, allows the tension to elevate even more.

One of the more interesting elements in this film is Kaylie’s documenting headquarters, featuring more MacBooks and video cameras than an Apple Store. Credit Jeff Howard for sparing us what has now become the cliche backstory where they magically find someone involved with the mirror, who’s now either institutionalized or might as well be, and they go on a road trip to find out more. In just a few minutes, Karen Gillan, explaining to her brother and whoever ends up finding her footage, gives us all the history and backstory that we need, and does so with some rather investigative flare.

Oculus may not exactly reinvent the horror genre, but it still manages to be a fun, craftily-directed, smoothly-edited, well-performed thrill ride that sets itself up for possible sequels in the future. It may throw a few obligatory jump scares at you, but this film knows the best way to truly frighten its viewers is to get under their skin and leave them unnerved. I was honestly expecting this to be a bit of generic throwaway, but if I’m given an opportunity to be proven wrong by a film, I will gladly take it.

I give Oculus an A- (★★★½).

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