How do you get revenge on an inanimate object? That’s the quandary facing the characters in Oculus, a deeply silly and mildly effective horror movie about two young-adult siblings coping with the mysterious deaths of their parents. After a decade in therapy, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has finally reached a tenuous peace with his nightmarish memories, but no sooner has he been deinstitutionalized than big sis Kaylie (Karen Gillan) tries to convince him that the real culprit was in fact the spooky 300-year-old wall mirror acquired by their father shortly before his demise and that they have to return to their childhood home and destroy the mirror before it kills again.
What’s novel about Oculus is its structure, which cuts back and forth between Tim and Kaylie in 2012 and their experiences 10 years earlier. Because both timelines take place in the same household space, director Mike Flanagan is able to create a number of eerie visual parallels – mirror images, say – between past and present (Flanagan also edited the film himself, superbly).
There’s something richly suggestive in the premise of two troubled people returning to the proverbial primal scene to figure out how and why their lives got so screwed up, and the scenes depicting the gradual unravelling of the Russells’ household are unsettling. Similarly chilling is the implication that the Russell’s pater bought the mirror as a symbol of his clan’s upward mobility. Viewed through this lens, it’s possible to see Oculus as a kind of consumer critique, and the Russell family’s Amityville Horror experience as a punishment for buying into a very old-fashioned American Dream.
If that seems like an awful lot of subtext for a movie featuring a lethal piece of furniture, know that Oculus doesn’t skimp on surface pleasures – the sorts of slow-burn suspense sequences and sudden shocks that box-office successes like Insidious and The Conjuring have brought back into vogue. Flanagan sometimes succeeds in matching and even besting these bigger-budget competitors, engineering his share of scares – mostly involving creepy things glimpsed fleetingly in the mirror.
But this peekaboo-terror strategy gets repetitive, and, as speeds toward its elaborately cross-cut conclusion, less frightening. Flanagan is a gifted filmmaker, but clear-eyed viewers will perceive that the film only reflects the visions of the skillful thrillers that came before it.