The secret to horror movies, as any fan can tell you, is that they aren’t really about monsters or slashers or things that go bump in the night. They’re about fear… and specifically fear that we all feel in our everyday lives. Will I lose my house? Am I as alone as I feel? What will happen when I die? The best horror movies put a scary mask on those questions to help us better cope with them, but always view them as the purpose of the exercise. The worst just get caught up in the trappings and never escape. Good technique can make both types serviceable, but only the best can attain real greatness. Oculus certainly ranks among them: the strongest horror movie since Cabin in the Woods and a testament to what this genre can do in the hands of a real expert.
It actually resembles The Shining more than any other story, with a few nods to Roman Polanski’s early work thrown in for good measure. At its heart lies the destruction of the family and the reality of an insane loved one, which might actually explain everything that transpires. Ostensibly, it’s about an evil mirror and a pair of brave children who want to smash it. Their father (Rory Cochrane) buys it while moving the family into a new home, unaware of the previous owners and their suspicious habit of dying in incredibly horrific ways. A few days later, both he and his wife (Katee Sackhoff) lie riddled with bullets, and their kids get packed off to various state-run institutions.
Here’s where the film gets interesting. The son Brenton (Brenton Thwaites) goes into a mental home and over the course of ten years accepts the events as part of his father’s mental breakdown. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), stays a little safer in foster care, and remains convinced that whatever sinister spirit occupies the mirror caused the whole thing. They day he gets out – ready to put it all behind him – she picks him up and claims that they’re going to kill the monster in the mirror. Like right now.
Writer/director/editor Mika Flanagan gets clever with the narrative, constantly shifting back and forth between the children in the past and the adults they’ve grown into. We move from one era to the other so smoothly that at times the characters themselves don’t know which time period they’re occupying. You see, the mirror has the ability to cloud people’s minds and make then see what it wants them to see (or maybe the characters just go bananas). In any case, the past and the present soon blur together, forming an elegant nonlinear narrative that Tarantino would be proud of.
Within it, the real debate starts. Brenton maintains that it’s all in their heads. Kaylie is desperate to prove him wrong. Whether the mirror goads them on or not soon becomes irrelevant. It’s the argument – the mad rush for proof and conviction – that feeds the real nightmares. Both characters soon start to question their own eyes, and as their debate grows increasingly frenzied, so too does the lengths they would go to win it. We, the audience, share every instant of their struggle and feel the white-knuckle terror beneath it all.
As for more direct scares? Oh yeah, it’s got those in spades, and if that’s all you’re after, Flanagan’s craftsmanship will readily see you through. Creepy faces pop up with ruthless efficiency, and threats both mundane and otherwise come careening at us with the skill of a true master. (Credit Sackhoff for her share of the jolts; this woman is not going quietly into the post-Starbuck good night.) But Oculus is about much more than that, and in trying to get at our deepest fears, it becomes something totally unexpected: a great horror movie. It might not quite stand among the true masterpieces, but it can see them from here, and the assurance with which Flanagan adapts this from his own original short (made for the princely sum of $1,500) suggests that we’re seeing the emergence of a significant new talent. They’ve been popping up a lot in the past few years, and Oculus may be the best of the lot: the rare horror movie that really gets us where we sleep.