For a good 30-40 seconds, the camera follows Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) from behind as her ponytail, tightly tied, bounces from side-to-side, her high heels clattering on the floor. That frame at the beginning of the film is lovely and the first hint that things could actually turn sinister.
Then, there is the scene where Kaylie tells a mirror, “You must be hungry.” You know you are in for something good. Though not exactly as good as 2013’s The Conjuring, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is a scary ride. Flanagan does not dwell too much on ghosts and sound effects as he does on anticipation. You know that something is going to happen, that the mirror will do something, that a distant memory will appear around the corner, and yet — and this is where the film scores — you feel the chill as soon as it does. The point here is, Flanagan does not bank too much on the audience getting shocked as he does on them knowing that they will get shocked and still do.
In parts, Oculus could be a horror film in the genre of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. In other parts, it could just be a good beginning that could as easily be squandered as sequels are made of it. The ease (and to be honest, the predictable ease) with which the ending is left open makes Oculus a prime candidate for a sequel. However, you can’t help feeling that there would have been no better way to end the film. Anything else would have simplified it, almost trivialised it.
A brother and sister see their parents falling victim to an antique mirror. The film begins 11 years after that incident. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released on his 21st birthday from a mental facility and his sister Kaylie is waiting for him outside. Now, while Tim was in an institution, Kaylie has been using all these years to track down the mirror, and she finally has it. Kaylie wants her brother’s help to destroy it. The problem is, the mirror knows how to defend itself: “You see what it wants you to see.”
It is because it can do so that anyone who owns it ends up dead and — helps it kill its next victim. The film traces Kaylie’s and Tim’s efforts to, first document, and then, destroy the mirror. To say anything more would be giving the story away.
Flanagan’s film relies on some smart editing and good performances to maintain a tension that can almost be cut with a knife. Although both Gillan and Thwaites have done justice to their parts, special mention must be made of the two children Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as the young Kaylie and Tim. For any horror film to work, the ones playing the part of being haunted must look terrified and scared. The two children play that part convincingly.
Flanagan uses appearance and reality in several ways to impart horror. A bulb can be mistaken for an apple if they are placed side-by-side; a person can look like an apparition if the lights play tricks; an apparition could look like a statue if the mirror reflects it so; a fingernail can be mistaken for a bandaid; a supernatural powerful evil can be mistaken for a simple mirror. It is in this last piece of the puzzle that the movie revels in. Evil powers can masquerade among us as beautiful, ornate objects, and we might never know. Flanagan’s philosophy, however, goes beyond simple rules of metaphysics and questions the very concept of evil and demons.
As the children’s father says, “I have seen my demons and there are many”, you wonder if that is not what the film wants us to see: the many demons inside us. You can look real hard in the mirror to find out. Who knows what will look back at you?