Release Date: 13th June 2014
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan
Tim Russell is fragile. Just released from the high security psychiatric ward he’s been a patient of since he was ten years old, he’s starting to show signs of recovery after a deeply traumatic event in his childhood. His older sister Kaylie (an American accented Karen Gillan) who’s been waiting for him on the outside sees things rather differently from him now. Determined to prove that there was a supernatural cause to the tragedy in their past she recruits Tim to help her document the effects of the evil mirror that sent their parents violently insane. However, as they spend more time in the presence of the mirror the ghosts of the past begin to resurface, both literally and figuratively.
Despite being a horror movie about a malevolent haunted mirror, Oculus doesn’t rely on people and creatures popping up out of nowhere in the mirror’s image. In fact, the “classic” mirror scare trope is barely used at all; just as well because it appears in seemingly everything else, as you can see for yourself below. Instead of resorting to the cheap tricks of making audiences jump at loud noises or things leaping out from nowhere, Oculus washes over its viewers with slow waves of dread. This is a film that spends a lot of time in characters’ heads as they’re taunted and manipulated by the mirror, a quietly corruptive force akin to the Ring in the Lord of the Rings films, or the painting of Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters 2.
Even though Oculus has two separate narratives – Tim and Kaylie’s tragic childhood and their current predicament – director Mike Flanagan (whose last feature Absentia was released to great acclaim) maintains clarity throughout and controls proceedings with a steady hand. Using parallels and matches between scenes to cut elegantly from one time period to another, Flanagan (who also acts as editor on this film) gives little hints to Tim and Kaylie’s past and as the mirror begins to exert it malign influence the barriers between past, present, memory and delusion begin to fall apart.
Aiding this sense of dislocation and unease is the wonderfully creepy score by The Newton Brothers. Using an eerie combination of synthesisers and sounds such as broken glass or the scraping of metal, the music throbs and pulses. Slowly, almost imperceptibly the music builds until suddenly falling away into silence again. Like the film as a whole, the score comes at you in ebbs and flows, wrongfooting you much like the mirror does to its victims.
Compared to most modern horror films, Oculus is a little slower and more deliberate and all the better for it. Expertly put together this film takes time to establish the mood and scenario, content to slowly chip away at its audience with smaller, more squirm-inducing scares.