It’s so important in horror films for us to care about the characters in peril, more so, I think, than any other genre. With so much unpleasantness around them, if they themselves are just as unpleasant it’s too easy to become indifferent to the whole operation. In horror today, this happens frequently.
Yes there are obnoxious teenagers in the world, but who cares if they get eaten by zombies, or monsters, or whatever. If we start rooting for the villain, the film is no longer scary.
There’s a lesson that first-time director Mike Flanagan and his terrific Oculus could teach Hollywood. They won’t listen.
Tim’s newly released from a psychiatric hospital and he’s in the care of his sister Kaylie. They return to the house of their childhood, where one horrific night, both their parents turned, violent, insane and then were killed. Grown up and recovered, Kaylie thrusts Tim back into the middle of it as she remains convinced that the night of horrors that scarred their lives came not from the breakdown of their parent’s marriage, and later their minds, but by the centuries old antique mirror that hung in their father’s office.
She’s brought them all back: brother, sister and mirror, to the still empty house where everything happened.
Almost right out of the gate Oculus does a number of things well. In a genre that is so accustomed to its characters denying the supernatural for so long, it’s refreshing to find Kaylie completely convinced from the start.
Moments later in an extended, over ten minute long dialogue sequence, Kaylie explains all the machinations she’s created to prove her theory and describes the historical evidence uncovered from the mirror’s previous owners. Quickly and efficiently Flanagan gives us everything we need to know to get started, but then he turns the scene on a twist.
Ten minutes of exposition is given a purpose, when Tim challenges Kaylie’s own mental health. He uses the knowledge of doctors and therapists to disarm her, and force her to question if this is but her own way of dealing with what happened that night. Maybe there’s nothing to the mirror at all.
Oculus doubles as an examination of how violence affects its victims; how it distorts their emotions, perspectives and memories. It’s precisely because it does this that we’re so invested in Kaylie and Tim. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites ground their characters and play it straight; there’s no cynicism here or wink to the camera. They have simply grown into wounded adults.
That is the philosophy for most of the movie, and it works. Flanagan’s no bull approach only makes the fear that much stronger, and the mirror that much terrifying.
So many smart decisions fill Oculus, from its “mirroring” flashback and present day plot structure; its just-the-right-amount of disorienting editing; and the presence it creates out of an inanimate object.
Oculus is horror done right, done efficiently, done with great care and love for its audience and genre. It’s proud to bare something which most modern scares are too quick to rip out: a beating heart.