Oculus (2013), the latest chiller from Salem-born director Mike Flanagan, began life as a short back in 2006. It went on to be widely-praised in horror circles, and now he has adapted into a feature-length supernatural chiller about a pair of siblings that believe that a haunted antique mirror is responsible for their parents’ deaths. Split over two time lines, we first meet the Russell siblings in the present day. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has recently been released from a psychiatric institute on the eve of his 21st birthday and is reunited with his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Tim spent the past decade incarcerated following the death of his mother and father (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane).
Newly released and ready to begin again, Tim hopes to adjust to a normal life. His sister has other ideas, however. Kaylie blames her parents’ murder on a mysterious mirror, an antique that her father purchased a decade earlier to decorate their new home, which purportedly has been responsible for a series of gruesome deaths down through the centuries. Out for revenge on this mystical artefact, Kaylie concocts an elaborate plan to destroy the mirror (which is seemingly indestructible) and prove that her parents’ tragic demise was no accident. We flit between the past and the present, meeting Kaylie and Tim as children (played with particular panache by young talents Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan), before we see the pair moving into their idyllic, picket-fenced new home. Ah, memories.
Like so many horror films before it, Oculus’ domestic bliss quickly transforming into a nightmarish situation. A wily spirit from the mirror quickly seduces Kaylie’s spouse Alan (Rory Cochrane), turning him against his wife and children. These moments riff on the idea domesticity disturbed, where underlying psychological issues are manifested as paranormal phenomenon. Flanagan’s best move is to play with our expectations, where we are never quite sure what is actually is real and what is supernatural. Despite its strong hook, the film does spin out of control under the weight of its own internal logic. We oscillate between the siblings’ perspectives, with Kaylie’s desperate attempts to expose “the truth” by setting up a myriad of cameras, sensors and even using a French bulldog a test subject, balanced by her brother’s scepticism, constantly trying to convince his sister that their father was responsible for the death of their mother. Oculus rattles along well regardless, building towards a grim and satisfying crescendo.