In 2002, the Russell family move into their new home, and bring some antiquities along with them to decorate, including a large ornate mirror. Brother and sister Tim and Kaylie start noticing strange things in their parents, until eventually both are dead and Tim is taken into custody. 11 years later, he’s released from the mental hospital looking to move on with his life, only to be welcomed by Kaylie, who’s hell-bent on destroying the mirror she’s convinced took her parents away from her and ruined her brother’s life.
Oculus is a creepy little thriller that focuses on atmosphere and dread significantly more than blood or even really scares. Anchoring the film are two great performances from Karen Gillan and Annalise Basso as the older and younger Kaylie respectively.
Basso gives Young Kaylie a badass determination while still conveying the fear of her situation, and Gillan convincingly crafts the grown-up version of the earlier self – direct, driven, perhaps a little obsessed.
What’s also amazing is that the film manages to utilise a premise of “creepy mirror” and not only a) make it into a complex narrative, but also b) make it not seem ridiculous. If anything, it shares more than a few similar motifs with House of Leaves’ paranoia-inducing artefacts and the effects they have on their owners, and to the same creepy intent.
The first half of the film plays with the psychological aspects of Tim and Kaylie, with grown-up Tim (Brenton Thwaites) having learned to rationalise everything that he experienced as a child. This approach makes us question what we’re seeing, and if it’s real or not, until the film directly addresses that approach with overwhelming evidence in favour of the mirror’s potential for evil, and then continues making us question what is or isn’t real. That the film’s horror is largely allegorical for domestic violence and the breakdown of family units certainly helps this, building on how much actually happened and how much two damaged children may have invented as a coping mechanism.
It’s a nifty narrative here, with two separate time lines being revealed to the viewer concurrently (it’s not enough to call them flashbacks, as they permeate the movie, sometimes in the same scene) and letting us know exactly what went on between Kaylie and Tim and their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) but also using these same points as psychological horror-tricks the mirror plays on our two leads.
And while it’s not a knee-grippingly terrifying movie, it’s as creepy and atmospheric as anything without being on the nose about it. A scene involving an apple turns particularly horrific, but its reveal to the audience is done tastefully, and in fact in a way that makes that moment all the more horrifying.
It’s certainly not gonna send you screaming and cowering under your covers at night, but if you’re after a well-made, well-performed little thriller to tingle your spine, this is a perfectly harmless example of how it can be done.