If there's one certainty in the horror genre, it's that trends will come and go. Some strain of horror will be popular for a few years, then disappear just as quickly, waiting for its moment of reinvention or cultural relevance. The genre's recent past has been dominated by two forces: the torture-porn subgenre, in which our anxieties about war atrocities translate, somewhat clumsily, to movies where people spend whole running times getting pieces of their bodies lobbed off. The other, equally powerful force in horror movies has been the "found footage" genre, again translating our cultural queasiness when it comes to technology and turning it into something positively supernatural. But thanks to last summer's surprise blockbuster "The Conjuring," it looks like those are being shoved aside in favor of good old-fashioned haunted house spookiness. "Oculus" is a perfect example of this newly relevant style, and the results are damn scary.
As "Oculus" opens, a disturbed young man named Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites, handsome but somewhat bland) is about to be released from a mental institution. The movie plays cagey with the details, but something terrible and very violent happened in his past. Tim's sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan from "Doctor Who"), who suffers from similarly sleepless nights, is an auctioneer with a swinging ponytail of brilliant red hair. She meets him as soon as he gets out. What's more: she's got news. It seems that she has found something very important to the siblings. It's an ornate mirror that has just been sold off. And it has a connection to their past.
Kaylie uses her connections with the auction house to "borrow" the mirror. She has it brought to their childhood house, which has been in her care since their parents died (cue ominous music). Her intention is to explain to Tim what the mirror really is and then destroy it (she's got a weighted anchor attached to the wall that is scheduled to swing down and shatter the mirror, should she not reset the timer). Kaylie begins explaining the haunted history of the mirror—how almost every owner has met some horrible fate. Tim, rattled by his sister's single-minded determination and sense of purpose, especially coming so soon after his release, combats her supernatural speculation with pop psychology. Some of these earlier scenes are the movie's best, as they have a philosophical battle of wits as the fucked up history of this cursed glass is revealed in its entirety.
The most ingenious aspect of "Oculus" is how, once the siblings enter their childhood home, the movie shifts back in time between the two grown kids in the house and their childhood selves in the weeks leading up to the tragedy that would ultimately claim both of their parents. This adds so much to the movie, it cannot be understated, and the way that the two timelines play off of each other is pretty spectacular. The adult Kaylie and Tim might be walking down the stairs, but by the time they reach the ground floor, the camera has swiveled around, revealing their child counterparts (played by the truly wonderful Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso). In the flashbacks, we get to also see their parents, played by two wholly underrated actors: Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff. (They show how suburban squabbles can soon escalate to a level of supernatural nastiness; metaphors run deep.) Occasionally these scenes of the family's domestic life don't quite work, but that's more of a matter of point of view. If all of this stuff is supposed to be coming from things that the kids have seen, then they don't always work. If it's more about an emotional impression, then everything is just fine.
As the spookiness intensifies, so does the more outwardly supernatural, mind fuck-y stuff. Half of the fun of the film is watching Tim come around to the fact that all of the psychobabble that has been poured down his throat since entering the institution is absolute bunk. There are some things that therapeutic discussion cannot alleviate. Things like haunted mirrors. And while the movie introduces some specifics to the mirror's lore, like the fact that the malevolent force kills all plants (and, occasionally, dogs), it remains willfully obscure about what the mirror is and what's inhabiting it, which in an era of over-mythologizing, is a welcome relief. Is it a demon? A ghost? Some kind of boogin? It doesn't really matter. You understand what it's capable of: the kind of tragedy that can reverberate through generations.
Towards the movie's third act, after some truly scary stuff has gone down (there's a scene with an apple that had us contorting in our seat), a sense of dread settles in: there's no way that this is going to have a happy ending. Gillan, who will next be seen as an evil robot alien in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," plays a young woman who is tough and committed and wound as tight as her ponytail. But part of the movie is about letting go—of the past, of notions of revenge and the satisfaction that supposedly comes along with it—and it's something that she refuses to accept. It's a wonderful performance, at once brittle and deeply compassionate, and between this and 'Guardians,' big things are likely on the way for Gillan.
Director Mike Flanagan also helped edit the film, and the movie is ridiculously tight. Even with the two timelines, two sets of actors playing the same character, fantasy elements that intermingle with what is actually happening, and a scary ghoul with glowing eyes, there isn't an ounce of fat on "Oculus." It's easily the scariest movie since "The Conjuring," and in some ways is a deeper and more satisfying film. It's stylish but not showy, more concerned with the thematic undercurrents coursing just beneath the surface. In "Oculus," the lead characters are deeply disturbed adults who are trying desperately to move on with their lives. Almost everyone is haunted by some aspect of their past. What "Oculus" suggests is that you have to move on… or you'll pay the ultimate price. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.