MRR Review: "Oculus"

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A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.
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Rating: R
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: April 11, 2014
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Genre: Horror

"Oculus" is the latest in a string of throwback horror films. This loosely defined genre is characterized by modern horror films that, like their early predecessors, rely on suspense and intrigue rather than gore to evoke fear. "Oculus" tells the story of a young woman who fights to exonerate her father and brother of crimes they committed while under the influence of a haunted mirror. The movie is an expanded version of a very well-received short film written and directed by Mike Flanagan several years ago.

The haunted mirror is an ornate antique that was made in the 1700s and acquired by the Russell family 11 years ago. The Russell family patriarch purchased it to hang in his home office, thinking that the antique would lend the room some much-needed character. Within weeks of acquiring the mirror, he tortures and murders his wife and attempts to kill his children Kaylie and Tim. Tim stops the attack by shooting his father in self-defense and is placed in a mental institution as a result of his assertions about the involvement of the mirror. Kaylie spends the rest of her childhood in foster care, and the two do not reconnect until Tim is released at age 21.

The mirror wreaks havoc with the lives of everyone who comes in contact with it,  including the families who owned it in the past. It seems to do so by inducing hallucinations. For example, the mirror can make a mother think she is bathing an infant when she is actually drowning the child.

Tim and his older sister Kaylie made a vow to destroy the haunted mirror following the events that took place when they were kids. However, Tim was persuaded that his belief that the mirror was haunted was part of a delusion during his 11 years in the mental institution. Kaylie finds she must help Tim recover his repressed memories so he can help her destroy the mirror. Kaylie's plan is to destroy the mirror by using video cameras and anecdotal evidence about the mysterious deaths of its previous owners to prove that the mirror, not the people, were responsible for tragic and heinous crimes, including the ones that occurred within the Russell family.

"Oculus" benefits from a strong cast. Newcomer Brenton Thwaites gives a solid performance as the confused and weary Tim. Rory Cochrane, who plays the father, excels at garnering the audience's sympathy as a victim of possession, while still conveying a sense that he could possibly be crazy. Karen Gillan is outstanding in her role as the strong-willed, level-headed and determined Kaylie.

The characters are smart. Audiences can relate to them because they do things that the average person would do if put in a similar situation. There are several revealing moments where the audience recognizes the characters' logic and motives for the way they deal with the mirror as something they would do themselves.

A key component to the movie's effectiveness is Michael Flanagan's direction style. The movie flows smoothly along two time lines, one with Tim in the present and the other covering the events that took place in the Russell family's past. The double narrative arc results in essentially telling two stories at once, with the climax for both stories happening at the same time in the same house several years apart. Though the audience already knows how the storyline from the past ends, Flanagan's direction is deft enough that the audience remains interested and engaged throughout the retelling.

Ultimately, "Oculus" is a movie about insidious mind games. Flanagan draws the viewer into these games by keeping the audience guessing. Audience members don't know anything that the characters do not know. Nothing about the true nature of the mirror and how it controls its victims is revealed until the very end of the film. No one, including the audience, learns the difference between reality and the mirror's illusions until the story is nearly complete. This storytelling style is refreshing and brings an older style of horror films to mind. While the movie leans heavily on  the supernatural, it leaves things open to interpretation, allowing the audience to make up its own mind about what is real and what is fabricated.

"Oculus" creates a genuine sense of intrigue, mystery and terror by keeping the audience off-kilter and leaving them with questions until the very last moment. Good acting, tight direction and excellent writing help sell the premise of a haunted mirror that drives people to murder. This Stephen King-esque film is a welcome addition to the renaissance of horror films.