Oculus: Film Review

Enjoyable ghost story makes good use of clashing perspectives.

A brother and sister attempt to destroy the spirit-possessed mirror that killed their parents.

A brother and sister face off against the mysterious force that destroyed their childhood in Mike Flanagan's Oculus, an effective little creeper that makes the most of its ghost-hunting conceit. Key art focusing on our heroes as young kids fails to capture the well-balanced nature of the yarn, which is as involving in its present-tense action as in the extended flashbacks showing the horrors that the children witnessed. But strong word-of-mouth should help genre fans find the picture, which has no fright-flick competition in theaters at the moment save for a Jim Jarmusch vampire film that will never be mistaken for fanboy fare. Sequels are a possibility, though screenwriters would be unable to reuse the devices responsible for much of this outing's appeal.

When they were young, Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) were moved into a big new home by their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), who very soon succumbed to dark forces. While dad grew increasingly secretive and distracted, spending all his time locked in his home office, mom went insane. When she grew so dangerous that she threatened the children, dad killed her in a domestic struggle. Tim, traumatized, shot him dead.

Or so Tim's shrinks say. Upon his release from a mental institution 11 years later, authorities declare that Tim (now played by Brenton Thwaites) "is a healthy adult" ready to reenter society. Kaylie (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, still believes in the version of events the children pieced together at the time: Their parents were controlled by a spirit residing in the beautiful, ornate mirror Dad bought for his new office, a mirror they tried and failed to break before it was sold in the aftermath of the killings.

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Now, having tracked down the mirror at an estate auction and returned it to its place in their old house, Kaylie intends to document its powers before destroying it with Tim's help. She has turned the house into an elaborate observational machine, building ingenious countermeasures she thinks will record any paranormal activity, even if the mirror gets inside their heads, making them think they see things that aren't there. While Tim argues with her plans, parroting the psychological explanations of events he has heard for years, she uses an array of video cameras and computers to recount the history of this evil looking glass — which has caused four centuries of deaths in the households that owned it — and prove its power is real.

Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard get good mileage out of Kaylie's no-nonsense planning, demonstrating the strength of "the Lasser glass" by showing how she hopes to foil its efforts to protect itself; the certainty of Gillan's performance introduces another layer of unease as the debate between the siblings heats up, leading us to wonder if Tim is right in his more prosaic explanation of events.

That possibility is thrown out in one of the film's cleverest moments, which involves Kaylie's recording equipment and the characters' faltering hold on their senses. Given the importance of character-generated video here, it's a relief the filmmakers chose not to rely on a found-footage conceit; for once, our heroes have an excellent reason to view all the action through cameras, but limiting the audience to those perspectives would have resulted in a more ordinary film.

As the scares pick up pace and ghost-induced hallucinations dominate the action, the past and present start to overlap with each other; the adults watch their younger selves enduring horrors they can't undo. These visions have a poetic quality at first, but as they proliferate (and as more and more of the mirror's victims materialize in the house), the film's tension between objective and perceived realities loses some of its power. Having tasked us with the job of separating one from the other, Flanagan needs to preserve some shred of our hope that we can do so. If we lose that briefly, though, the story's conclusion benefits from a closure that is satisfying despite — and even because of — its predictability.

Production: Intrepid Pictures, Blumhouse Productions, WWE Studios
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel
Director-Editor: Mike Flanagan
Screenwriters: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producers: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy
Executive producers: Michael Ilitch Jr., Dale Armin Johnson, Nail Kurian, Michael Luisi, D. Scott Lumpkin, Julie B. Many, Glenn Murray, Peter Schlessel
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Costume designer: Lynn Falconer
Music: The Newton Brothers

Rated R, 103 minutes