Even though it’s not entirely original, “Oculus” is a somewhat masterful blend of horror elements that builds on Stephen King’s “The Shining” and comes up with a terrifying experience likely much too intense for the squeamish. With a tiny budget and a largely unknown cast, writer/director Mike Flanagan reminds us that the best horror films stem from a fairly simple idea and don’t need to have things jump out from around corners to be effective. While horror lovers will likely see the ending coming from a mile away, the ride is much more important than the destination, and “Oculus” ends up a powerful remix of old ghost stories that shows what can be done with little more than a camera and some creative writing.
Oddly enough, just about the worst thing that happens to Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is getting out of a mental institution. Plagued by terrible nightmares that point to a horrific past, Tim believes to have control over his fear and is now ready to reenter the world at the tender age of 21. But even though Tim seems like a shy but normal young man, his will is very quickly tested by his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who picks him up from the front door of the mental institution eager to delve back into the past. She may seem helpful and kind, yet Kaylie might be the last person on the planet that Tim should be hanging around with his newfound freedom.
As Tim plans to slowly get back to a normal life, we start to find bits and pieces of the story that sent him to the mental institution in the first place. Committed for killing his father after watching his mother brutally murdered, Tim could probably use about a 10-year spell sitting on a beach somewhere with a margarita in his hand, but instead his sister plans to bring him back to the scene of the crime to deal with the ugly past that shattered both of their lives. Though Tim is confident that the mental health experts are right, and that he did in fact snap because of a traumatic event, Kaylie is convinced that there is still unfinished business leftover from the night they lost both of their parents.
To Tim’s shock, Kaylie’s plans revolve around bringing back an allegedly haunted mirror that she believes is responsible for their father losing his marbles. Tim may have literally just walked out of the cuckoo’s nest but soon she has him involved in some sort of amateurish séance meant to lure out the demons hidden in the mirror. More to prove to herself that she didn’t imagine the whole thing than anything else, Kaylie springs an intricate plan to get revenge on the mirror that ruined their lives. It may seem silly enough, and Tim certainly doesn’t believe any of it, but Kaylie is out for vengeance and she doesn’t seem interested in calculating the odds of success.
Of course, viewers that insist on logic will see plenty of holes in her plan right away. On one hand, Kaylie believes that the mirror is responsible for a few dozen deaths, dating back to the 18th century, yet she also believes that she can overcome the supernatural forces because she has a few cameras and some power bars to keep from starving to death.
But even though the plot is a bit silly and Tim should have run out the door screaming from the get-go, “Oculus” benefits from its short-sighted characters – a timeless horror tradition – and before long their world is slowly caving in around them. Moving back and forth between the original incident and present day, “Oculus” cleverly layers the story so that time and space blend together and soon Tim and Kaylie are so sucked into the spell of the mirror that they’ve completely lost sight of reality.
Though other horror films have moved along similar plot points, “Oculus” does a remarkable job of playing with perspective and losing us in the moment, leaving us wondering along with Tim and Kaylie as they delve deeper into the nightmare. “Oculus” may occasionally have a supernatural being pop out of nowhere, but in staying away from most of the usual cheap thrills, it also allows the psychological terror and mystery to build in a way that separates it from most of its peers.
Anyone familiar with either the Stephen King novel or Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic “The Shining” will see plenty of familiar elements, right down to the husband/father slowly getting sucked into the insanity as the rest of the family struggles to believe what they’re seeing. But even with a similar overall story, “Oculus” has a different bag of tricks up its sleeve and kudos go to Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard for making a ghost story about a magic mirror as scary as it is. Though the ending is a bit too obvious and abrupt to take “Oculus” to the next level, Flanagan shows that he’s a promising horror director who understands what drives the genre. Certainly not for the faint of heart, “Oculus” is low-budget horror filmmaking at its finest, though leaving logic at the ticket stand is probably for the best.