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Deftly straddling the line between haunted house horror film and twisting psychological thriller, Oculus is a meticulous, intelligent and ultimately chilling exercise. To boot, it maintains moodiness and boasts a core human element to keep everything supported. Praise must be given to its stars and director in turn, but perhaps even more so to the editors of Oculus who manage to keep things crisp and frightening while balancing both jumps in time and hallucinatory leaps as things become increasingly dire.
Told in parallel stories, one set in present day and the other 11 years prior, Oculus follows a family of four, who upon bringing an ornate mirror into their new home, begin to experience a shift in the aura of the house – delusions and hauntings in the subconscious begin to plague the parents, before things culminate in horrific fashion. In the present, the children of this couple, lead by the fearsomely committed sister (Karen Gillan), seek to prove what transpired over a decade earlier was not caused the fracturing of minds but of something more sinister.
Even if you were to take any semblance of horror staples out of Oculus we would still be left with a memorable and chilling film dealing with aspects of mental illness, marital unrest, growing old, infidelity and the bond between siblings, if albeit in a depressing light. However with this mirror thrown into the twist, added is that all important supernatural edge, all while keeping on the backburner the simple explanation that the cause of all these events are just the dark manifestations of troubled individuals. The resulting product is infuriating, fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
The four principle cast members, made up of the aforementioned Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff, are all exceptional, believably bringing to life the cumulative effects of a mental breakdown (both in the moment and the repercussions down the road) making them into tragic characters more than stereotypical horror film antagonists and heroes. Gillan in particular is noteworthy, as is director Mike Flannigan’s handling of her, in that we are presented with a strong female lead and one that at least superficially, makes level-headed, intelligent decisions when approaching the mirror, which is essentially the villain of the picture.
Oculus even manages to give a very strong case as to how it handles the door paradox, in that it’s shown (or at least offered) that the mirror has a built in defense mechanism that prevents it from being destroyed, all why keeping its victims in a state of such mental confusion, a character may not even have entered the room they thought they had. I will not give anything specific away here but it again ties into the exceptional editing which keeps everything maddening and confusing for the characters, but perfectly understandable from the viewer’s perspective.
What I can say above all else is that Oculus, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, is a horror film for people who don’t like horror films but also a horror film for people who love horror films. There is enough going on from a story and intrigue perspective to keep even casual viewers’ interest piqued and the lack of gruesome gore or other frustrating horror movie tropes lets the prowess of all else shine through. But it still makes for memorable viewing and the unsettling feeling you have when leaving this film will be one that is hard to shake.