It’s difficult to walk away from Oculus. Not in the sense that it’s difficult to walk out of the theater — that’s outright impossible — but in the sense that it is, literally, difficult to walk away from the arena after the credits roll. You don’t rightly know which way is up.
The movie takes place in two simultaneous timelines. In one, Alan and Marie Russell (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) and their children, Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) have moved into a new house and brought new furniture with them, including an antique mirror, the kind of thing that is so obviously and voraciously possessed it could only exist in a nightmare like this movie. After shenanigans, Tim is institutionalized after killing his father, who had killed his mother.
Eleven years later, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged. Kaylie (Karen Gillan), now an auction house logistics employee, has brought the mirror back to their old home to, against Tim’s better judgment and every shred of rational thought, force the mirror to perform its shenanigans on camera to clear her family’s name before she destroys it.
Oculus only makes any traditional form of sense for about 20 minutes, then the mirror takes sway and there’s nothing for the audience to hold on to. Time, reality, flashes of powerful love and long stretches of abject terror fold into and on top of one another. In the film’s waning stages, it gets to the point that there’s genuinely no way to know if events are unfolding in the present or the past.
The film instantly becomes one of the most primal horror movies ever made, featuring both disturbingly possible family violence and brutal scenes of self-mutilation. The father’s distant, abusive behavior is scary because it’s real. In one scene, the mother attacks her youngest child after seeing her cesarean section scar reopen.
Some gruesome scares are completely out of left field. Some are telegraphed a mile away but sold brilliantly by an impeccable cast. Other horrors are slowly revealed.
Classic horror tropes mingle and fold in with each other as well. Hitchcockian house levels play a huge role, and the old Poltergeist dynamic of family strife turning into supernatural violence is at play on more levels than one. They provide a firm, familiar frame within which the mirror can run amok.
The film represents a return to form for the amorphous “producers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious.” The tag has been applied to movies of the eponymous series as well as Sinister and Dark Skies, and it’s never really meant much. Paranormal Activity was an extremely underground film that was initially going to be remade with a larger budget, but became its own feature when test audiences were literally too scared to keep watching because, unlike other horror movies in which a villain attacks a protagonist, that movie saw the villain attack the audience directly.
The parade of horror movies that have tried to associate themselves with that first success, including the initial film’s direct sequels, have mostly been over-produced messes that completely missed what made the first one brilliant. Oculus returns to the pseudo-series’ roots — it’s indie, being based on director/writer/editor Mike Flanigan’s 2006 short, and it attacks the audience even more directly than Paranormal Activity.
The mirror operates by showing its victims a combination of horrifying and deceptive images. What does any horror movie do other than that? It’s as if the entire audience is right next to the characters under the mirror’s spell.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and a senior staff writer for the NT Daily. The Riverwalk Mall in San Antonio is probably the most poorly laid out mall in the world. For questions, rebuttals and further guidance about cinema, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At this point, I’d like to remind you that you shouldn’t actually go to movies and form your own opinions. That’s what I’m here for.