Happily longer on chills than entrails, the crafty new horror film Oculus is about a haunted mirror. Three years ago, writer-director Mike Flanagan made the similarly low-budget Absentia, which dealt with a haunted pedestrian underpass. In this genre, it’s good to be specific.
Certainly Flanagan, whose latest comes from a 2005 short film, has learned the virtues of a simple idea, fruitfully elaborated. His co-writer, Jeff Howard, worked on both the short version of Oculus and the feature version. The script takes the time to make us care about the fates of a brother and a sister we meet first in flashback, then 11 years later. In the prologue, young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) are beset in their home by … we’re not sure, exactly. Demon-eyed specters? Their murderous father, played by Rory Cochrane? Mom, or demon-mom, portrayed by Katee Sackhoff?
It’s quick and evocative, this appetizer, and Oculus brings us up to speed efficiently. The adult Tim—charged with the murder of his parents that long-ago night—is about to be released from a mental institution. He’s played by promising Australian actor Brenton Thwaites. In the key role, Dr. Who alum Karen Gillan is the adult Kaylie, driver of the narrative, determined to prove her brother’s innocence.
The mirror did it! Carved, we’re told, out of precious “Bavarian black cedar,” the antique mirror hangs on the wall of dad’s home office in the childhood sequences in Oculus. Most horror films are relatively sparing in their use of back story flashback; the novelty here, which works well until the last 10 minutes or so, is Flanagan’s tight interweave between past- and present-day action, tight enough to inch into pure, dreamy hallucination. Having retrieved the mirror and returned it to the scene of the crime, Gillan’s Kaylie sets up a three-camera videography experiment in their late father’s home office in order to record whatever evil spirits, or reflections, the mirror can throw at her and Tim. Mission: “to kill it,” Kaylie says.
Gillan rattles through a considerable amount of exposition in Oculus, and she has a way of doing so that makes the whole premise faintly comic on the surface yet completely grave underneath. The younger actors in the flashback half of the movie undergo a lot of realistic anguish; there are times when the film’s spooky fun becomes grim enough to disqualify itself as fun. But Flanagan’s a skillful director and editor, and simply by placing the camera in logical but unusual places, such as high above and slightly in front of a performer, the tension increases moment by moment, ghost by ghost, frightening reflection by reflection. Referencing bits of The Shining, The Stepfather and a few other standards, Oculus lacks a big finish. It does not, however, lack for sequel possibilities.
The Oculus (R): ★★★☆☆