In Mike Flanagan’s sensational new horror film Oculus, the catalyst of all the mind-fuckery that sets the entire film into twisted, hallucinogenic territory is taken from a storage house and moved into a room where our two young, sexy yet quizzically distressed protagonists will set to unleash the monstrosities over the film’s taut 104-minute length. The fiendish object in question is a 17th-century old fogey’s mirror called Lasser Glass that’s purportedly a prime suspect of the 48 recorded deaths throughout four centuries – a grisly enough record that warrants a quick, snappy trip down the tip to smash the motherfucker to smithereens before it could claim another life. So it’s just well beyond our collective common sense why the hell would anyone want to spend another hour in the company of this mirror, when you could promptly get it over and done with in five minutes. But that wouldn’t make a very good movie, would it? The idea of somebody driving down the dump, throwing the mirror into the pile of junk, subsequently wrecking it into pieces would make a very, very short film, indeed.
But since logic doesn’t generally rule in the horror genre – otherwise every protagonist in every single horror film ever made wouldn’t go deep into the woods, move into the big old house or open the Book of the Dead despite all the red-light warnings – we have Oculus, where twentysomething antique auctioneer Kaylie (played to a monomaniacal persistence by an impressive Karen Gillan) drags her psychiatrically institutionalised brother Tim (YA dude-of-the-moment Brenton Thwaites) to their childhood home to confront the bloody mirror once and for all. So far, so terribly contrived – but in testament to Flanagan’s refusal in pandering to by-the-book tricks to his audience, he takes this initially lame premise and transform it into a dizzying, elaborately kaleidoscopic smoke-and-mirror expo that subverts almost every goddamn horror cliché in the canon. Flame-haired Kaylie sets up meticulous contraptions (read: OCD tendencies) to wage her war against the mirror – cameras, alarms, battery-powered lights, thermostats and a fail-safe boat anchor with a special function – all strategically placed around the house like it’s Home Alone again. All these tropes would’ve been numbly executed in a lesser horror movie, but Oculus has a far smarter masterplan than your pedestrian Paranormal Activities, Insidiouses and The Conjurings.
Flanagan juggles two timelines together, a non-linear narrative technique that feels arch at first but seems invigorating and actively engaging throughout its many surprising storytelling routes and twisteroos. Just when Kaylie and her reluctant ally Tim piece the puzzle of their troubled past together, the film plunges deeper into the subconscious, where the difference between memory and illusion becomes murkier with every step, as the siblings investigate their parents’ gruesome Amityville-esque marital breakdown, as well as the nightmarish evening in hell they suffered eleven years ago as kids. Here, fear isn’t drawn from cheap jump-scares (sure, there’s a few of that, including a laughable ghostly apparition in the mirror) but rather the creepy uncertainty between what’s real, manifested and imagined. Even cameras, perhaps the most oft-exploited device in 21st century to record evidence, have become absolutely unreliable in this context. This is what makes Oculus so fiercely effective and unsettling – suggesting that our minds might be the most unreliable narrator in our own narrative. Not exactly an everyday thesis in every other horror movie. Which sets this apart in today’s arena of sad, cash-whoring horror movies with no panache whatsoever (or imagination, at least), genuinely peeling down layers and years of family discord, psychological trauma and domestic horror that shore up shards of truth in a distorted reflection of reality. When the lights go up in the end, you’d be glad they didn’t make that trip down the dumps after all, since this is the most involving fun you’ll have in a horror film for a good while.