'Oculus' holds up a mirror to a disturbing family past
Facing childhood trauma can be like a trip through the looking glass.
And in Oculus, it is literally just that.
Viewers are quickly drawn into the unsettling and well-acted story (*** out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide) of a haunted antique mirror that takes siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) back to the harrowing tragedy of their parents' grisly deaths. Actually, the mirror directly led to their murders and threatened their own lives. At least, that's what Kaylie staunchly believes.
Tim is more of a realist: He believes his mother (Katee Sackoff) had a psychological breakdown and his father (Rory Cochrane) was a murderer.
Any way you look at it, they've suffered terribly. But they're survivors. Kaylie (played as a child by Annalise Basso) endured the foster care system. Tim (played in youth by Garrett Ryan)) was shipped off to a mental institution.
Tim's just been released after 10 years. So the first thing his sister suggests is a trip back to their childhood home to destroy the wickedly inscrutable mirror that caused all the havoc in their lives. It certainly would not have been on the list of activities recommended by Tim's encouraging therapist (Miguel Sandoval).
It helps that the pair is likable, though in markedly different ways. Kaylie is tough, determined and fiercely loyal. Tim is watchful, intelligent and vulnerable.
Now 23, Kaylie is hell-bent on destroying the mirror that her research revealed as a murderous ornament dating to the 1700s. Conveniently, she works for the auction house selling the mirror and arranges to transport it to their childhood home, empty for the decade since the tragic deaths.
The spooky tale of the mirror's malevolence has some cracks in its mythology. The garish-looking antique looks like it belongs in a house of ill repute. Instead, it graced the elegant walls of Balmoral Castle, the Scottish vacation residence of the British royal family. That the royals let such a substantial piece out of their hands, only to have it turn up in the home office of a suburban American family, seems a bit of a stretch, even for a ghost story.
The mirror infects the minds of those who peer into it, creating distorted visions, playing on fears and inducing vicious behavior. If Kaylie believes with such certainty in its powers of possession, why would she risk her life and her brother's to destroy it?
Logic aside, a mounting sense of dread permeates the film. Thankfully, suspense trumps blood and guts. The conclusion, however, is anti-climactic.
Writer-director Mike Flanagan's film — expanded from his 2005 short — has echoes of Paranormal Activityand The Shining. However, its central conflict — the occult vs. reason — is a viable, evergreen staple of the horror genre. The notion of children endangered by the sinister behavior of their parents intensifies the fear.
Oculus' creepiness is intensified by an eerily thrumming electronic score. The supernatural thriller is at its most enthralling when it sets up the siblings in mind-bending scenes in which it's nearly impossible to distinguish between imagination and reality.