Originality is a quality not often found in your average horror film. Movies like Paranormal Activity 4, Saw V, and Friday the 13th: Part 9; illustrate one of the biggest problems with the genre; it has become a safe haven for crappy sequels that fail to give us anything new or exciting. But every once in a while a movie comes along that catches you completely off guard. It defies your expectations and has the power to revitalize your faith in the genre. Oculus is one such movie.
Kaylie and Tim Russell went through a very traumatic experience when they were children; their father tortured and killed their mother before coming after them. The youngest, Tim, was forced to shoot and kill his father to protect his sister. 15 years later Tim is released from a psychiatric hospital, at peace with what happened and ready to face the world again. His sister Kaylie has become a smart and successful business woman. Using her resources, she manages to track down an antique mirror that the Russell’s owned during the time of their father’s madness. Kaylie tells Tim that the mirror is possessed by a demonic presence and that it was what was truly responsible for their father’s sadistic actions against their mother. Convinced of this, she sets out to destroy the mirror and avenge their parents. The only problem is that the mirror fights back!
Oculus has a lot going for it. First and foremost, it’s unpredictable. The mirror has the power to make people see things that aren’t actually there. As they succumb to this trancelike state, the mirror possesses their body and uses it to do terrible things. It’s the trance-like state that keeps us guessing about what we see on-screen. Writer/director Mike Flanagan cleverly jumps between scenes that are really happening and scenes that are only happening in the mind of one of the characters (while their body is doing something else entirely). We think we have a grasp on what’s happening (and going to happen), and then Flanagan and crew show us something that completely changes our perception. Oculus is the type of film that is just as fun to watch the 2nd time around just to see how the filmmakers were able to misdirect you enough to keep you guessing.
Another thing that Oculus has going for it is that it is genuinely creepy. As you learn more and more about the history of the mirror and the power it has over its victims, it starts to become a character in its own right, and a sinister one at that. The filmmakers have a clear understanding of the power of their audience’s imagination too. They never show you everything outright, but instead make you fill in the blanks with your own (terrible) thoughts and images. For the most part, you never really see what the presence is behind the mirror, you just see the power that it has over our characters and the awful things that it makes them do. Watch this one at night with the lights off and it will rattle around in your head long after the credits have finished rolling.
Other elements of Oculus are fairly standard. The actors all do their jobs but also don’t really do that much to stand out. The cinematography and design elements of Oculus are effective in drawing us into the world of the mirror (and the Russells) but there aren’t any shots, costumes, or set pieces that will really wow you or that you will walk away remembering after the film has ended. No, the main attraction of Oculus is the originality and unpredictability of its story. And in the horror film genre, that makes it something special.