Be sure to keep an eye on mirror-themed ‘Oculus’

April 21, 2014
Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso star in "Oculus."

Oculus could have easily been another installment of the “Amityville Horror” franchise circa the 1990s, which featured a possessed lamp (“Amityville Horror 4: The Evil Escapes”), a clock (“Amityville: It’s About Time”), and yes, a dollhouse (in the creatively titled “Amityville Dollhouse”).

In all fairness, a mirror was the home to nasty demons in “A New Generation” (the seventh film of the franchise, for those keeping score). Hell, there’s almost a sub-genre of mirror-heavy horror floating around out there, as they have been featured prominently as sources of supernatural nastiness since, well, since the reflection of the Evil Queen kissed up to her royal highness in 1938’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

So, with that in mind, "Oculus" may be a little late to the game of reflective horror, but it merits attention for its efforts to rely on old-school, under-the-skin creepiness rather than overwrought torture and systematic devastation of a cast of nubile, no-name actors.

Two siblings, Kaylie (played as an adult by Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites) head back to the source of their childhood trauma - an antique mirror they believe drove their dear daddy (played by Rory Cochrane) to unspeakable acts and made their mommy (played by Katee Sackhoff) nutso. And while all the elements contained within may appear familiar, it’s the gusto applied by writer/director Mike Flannigan that makes "Oculus" worthy of more than a passing glance.

By laying out narratives of their lives as children and their return as adults simultaneously, he deliberately intersects the story, keeping the audience off balance as to what is being experienced in "present day" and what is considered a flashback. It's a technique that can be difficult - and perhaps even off-putting - for some audience members to follow, but it reaps rewards for those who like to guess their way to a conclusion.

It's a slow build, to be sure, but by the time the third act kicks in (right around the time many films of the sort descend into just another "killer on the loose" plot device), "Oculus" folds over, crisscrosses and doubles back into an altogether different style all its own. It’s not interested in blood and gore as much as we’ve come to expect (though it’s blunt when it is used), and those seeking high body counts or jump scares will leave frustrated.

“Oculus” is more concerned with the construction of dread, mounting it gradually while playing with our perceptions of what is real.

“Oculus” is not revolutionary, but by the standards of horror, it does just enough right to set it apart from the fray, and its focus on the story’s construction rather than the cast’s destruction make this mirror-themed thriller one to keep your eye on.

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