Oculus, believe it or not, is a horror film that appeals to mainstream audiences without falling into the usual gory trappings of horror cliche. Violent only when it counts, Oculus gets by with an intriguing premise, chilling atmosphere and a surprisingly involving narrative that is unheard of in modern horror.
Karen Gillan stars as Kaylie, a young woman convinced that an ancient mirror is behind the unsolved murders of not only over a dozen historical figures, but also the deaths of her parents. Oculus tells two stories simultaneously: 10 years ago, young Kaylie and her brother Tim must deal with the supernatural powers the mirror is having over their parents, turning them into psychotic lunatics. In the present, Tim and Kaylie reunite. Kaylie, using her position as an employee of an auction house, gets the mirror transported to the children’s original home, where, after a little convincing on her part, they try to destroy it.
This is Mike Flanagan’s second film; his first being another horror outing in 2011, Absentia. Based on his earlier short film, “Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man With the Plan”, Flanagan is able to create a satisfying amount of emotion out of Oculus’ bleak atmosphere. Using a tragic narrative and great performances (Sackhoff’s turn as the child’s mother being the most impressive), Flanagan makes this a story worth caring about, and how often can you say that about modern horror films? Also by making the villain an ostensibly inanimate object, the movie has more time to focus on character and plot buildup, without having to resort to cheap jump scares that fill in the gaps between the story. Horror films work best when they don’t show too much, and the writers know this and utilise it to great effect. Like fellow horror director James Wan, Flanagan knows that jump scares can be effective, and he uses them only when they are needed, understanding that dread is a thousandfold more potent than shabby, violent spectacle.
Oculus does what it needs to do, and that’s provide dark entertainment for its 104 minute running time. It doesn’t have much of a lingering effect, and the ending is either ridiculous or ominous depending on how you look at it. But as far as the modern horror picture goes, Oculus is dark, scary, and pretty darn clever.