With Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan. Directed by Mike Flanagan. Written by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard. Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language. 105 minutes.
If you put aside the monsters and the gorefests, the most interesting thing going on in contemporary horror movies is how the horror has become a metaphor for the dysfunctional family. Recent films like “The Conjuring” and “Sinister”–and even nonsense like the “Paranormal Activity” movies and the enormously overrated “Insidious”–have a family where there’s an issue between spouses or siblings or parents and children.
OCULUS is about Kaylie (Karen) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who have been living with some ugly family history. We only get hints at the beginning (and so this review will not fully explain it) that something horrible happened involving their parents (Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane) which led to Tim being institutionalized. At the start of the story, Tim has reached his 21st birthday and has been pronounced safe, not a danger to himself or others.
Tim is eager to get on with his life, but Kaylie wants to fulfill the promise they made to each other eleven years before: to deal with what caused their family to implode in a night of violence. Her theory is that it has to do with a cursed mirror that their father hung in his office. Kaylie, who works for an auction house, has traced the history of the mirror and it turns out there are many gruesome deaths in its wake. She has “borrowed” it from the auction house to conduct controlled experiments to prove her theories.
The skeptical might ask why she doesn’t simply destroy the mirror. In the movie, Kaylie claims that the mirror and the forces it contains can defend itself, but we in the audience know better. If they destroy the mirror at the start of the movie, there is no movie.
Instead, we’re asked to suspend our disbelief as director Mike Flanagan (who co-wrote the script with Jeff Howard based on a short film he had made) moves us back and forth in time. We see young Kaylie (an impressive Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) watching with growing fear as their parents’ marriage spins horribly out of control. Since the mirror also creates illusions in the minds of those within its power, both the two youngsters and their adult counterparts can’t always be certain that what they’re seeing–or not seeing–is real. There are moments when they cross paths with each other and we’re not always sure if it’s real or a trick of memory or something more sinister.
There are scares along the way and the story does come together, but this isn’t simply a story where characters are trying to destroy or exorcise evil spirits. That’s there, but if that’s all you want out of the movie it may disappoint, because it is the characters of Kaylie and Tim who are the real concern here. Can they let go of their past and live their lives, as Tim clearly wants to do, or will they be unable to rest until they confront their demons, literal or otherwise? The movie may want to scare you with its horror elements but it also wants to creep you out with real life horrors, like Kaylie and Tim overhearing their parents fight.
“Oculus” doesn’t break new ground, but it does handle the material in a slick and engaging manner, helped in no small part by the six actors in the four principle roles. Compared to what passed for horror back in the 1980s–masked killers gruesomely murdering horny teenagers–this is a mature and satisfying movie in more ways than one.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.