Kaylie and Tim Russell experienced a childhood trauma that left Kaylie in the foster care system and Tim in a mental health facility. Over the decade since their parents died under mysterious circumstances, the siblings’ memories of the event have diverged. Tim recalls extramarital affairs and spousal abuse that resulted in an explosion of violence. His account resembles so many other stories that fill our local newspapers and nightly news broadcasts. Kaylie remembers a strange antique mirror that drove her father to madness and murder, and Tim refuses to believe such a fantastical account of the final days of their family. But, some unexplained memories nag at him.
Oculus, the new horror thriller from writer/director Mike Flanagan (Absentia), examines our protagonists’ inner demons as well as the external supernatural forces that might be surrounding them. If you saw the trailer for this film and a “haunted mirror” made you groan or chuckle, don’t dismiss this movie on that basis. The mirror is characterized by Kaylie as a kind of malignance that has infected families for generations. Think of it as an evil icon that enjoys playing head games with its’ owners until they can be driven to perform despicable acts. There are no scenes of Kaylie and Tim stepping through the looking glass into some kind of supernatural world. Oculus is not that type of film, and it’s all the better for it.
Kaylie is not your usual Young Woman in Peril. She has meticulously planned her reunion with Tim and the mysterious mirror. You will not find her groping her way through the dark and asking “Who’s there?” like the many female horror film leads that preceded her to the big screen. Kaylie is on a mission to prove to her brother that supernatural forces destroyed their family, and she has taken considerable precautions to assure that they will not be the next victims claimed by the psychological manipulations she attributes to the mirror.
Oculus benefits from being based on a supernatural mythology that is believable (by horror film standards). There are demonstrable rules in effect that give the film an inherent sort of logic and prevent the “cheating” that so often accompanies films like this. Yes, we get a few cheap scares that prove to be nothing but a dream, and a number of simpler solutions to Kaylie and Tim ‘s dilemma will occur to you as the film progresses. And you may simply wonder why they didn’t just leave well enough alone. The evil doesn’t seek them out. They willingly go to the danger to confront their personal fears and demons. But, overall, Oculus is smarter than the average horror film playing at your local multiplex.
The horror genre is at its best when the supernatural is grounded in real human issues. For all of the haunted house trappings found in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the Stephen King novel is equally about domestic violence and substance abuse. Is the Overlook hotel really whispering evil sweet-nothings in Jack Torrance’s ear? Or is that just a convenient justification for the angry outbursts of an alcoholic author who abuses his family? The possibility of dual explanations strengthens Oculus, as well. Is Kaylie attributing her father’s evil deeds to supernatural occurrences because she refuses to accept she is a victim of abuse? Or was there more at work in their childhood home than Kaylie and Tim could see and touch?
Some online reviewers have suggested that Oculus is one of the best American horror films in years. Don’t carry those high expectations into the theater with you. The Conjuring (2013), Sinister (2012) and Insidious (2010) all immediately come to mind as superior horror films. However, if you are a committed fan who sits through hours of films that range in quality from mediocre to terrible, then Oculus will be a very pleasant surprise.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.