Holy heck, “Oculus” is scary. It’s also well-crafted and highly confident.
So confident it reveals its Obligatory Female Ghoul close to the movie’s start line. You know her: long, black, dank hair, pale complexion, come-here/go-away gaze. She’s part “The Ring,” part “Exorcist” and often shorthand for a lack of better ideas.
Most movies build up their OFG’s entrance. “Oculus” casually throws her out there because it knows it has more tools in its bag. That’s tools, not tricks, because this film thrives on accomplished directing, acting, editing and production design, not easy scares.
“Oculus” engrosses the viewer so fully that it feels like a powerful entity. But a guy – Mike Flanagan – directed, co-wrote and edited the film. Flanagan, who has worked mostly as an editor of episodic television, clearly has a dark, promising future in horror features.
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“Oculus” happens almost entirely in one house, alternating present-day and flashback scenes. At film’s start, siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan, from “Dr. Who”) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) return to the house, in which they had lived 10 years earlier with their parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff).
Horrible events occurred in the house soon after the family moved in, leaving Kaylie and Tim orphans. The now grown-up Kaylie wants to tease out and defeat the evil force she believed caused those events.
Gillan gives Kaylie just enough of a manic air to suggest she might be off balance. Tim, just back in balance after a mental-hospital stay tied to his time in the house, has rationalized what happened as unrelated to the occult. But Thwaites imbues Tim with a docility that carries from the hospital into going along with his sister’s wacky plan.
The house sits empty of the family’s belongings and still on the market after a decade. Apart from a few nagging bloodstains, it still looks move-in ready.
Unlike “The Amityville Horror” or “The Conjuring,” in which the houses look creepy from the start, this house is gorgeous. Its wainscoting and kitchen cabinetry sometimes steal visual thunder from the OFG, especially during the many flashbacks to when the whole family lived there. That horror can happen in such a nice place adds to an overall sense of unease.
Kaylie has isolated the culprit not as the house itself but an antique mirror her father bought for his home office when the family first moved in. Through her job at an auction house, Kaylie tracks down the mirror and returns it to the spot from which it previously did so much damage, to try to provoke it and then kill it.
Black framed and ornate, the mirror is the furniture equivalent of Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent.” There’s no way Cochrane’s rumpled, golf-playing dad character would have chosen it. It goes with the house like black-leather corsets go with Dockers. But this lapse in logic can be forgiven when “Oculus” contains so few compared with other horror films.
Like a lot of young people in horror movies, Kaylie moves toward trouble instead of away from it. She believes she can outsmart the mirror by drinking water at regular intervals (part of the mirror’s M.O. is literally sucking the life out of people by dehydrating them).
She underestimates the power of the mirror, which exercises demented control over spaces beyond the one it’s in. (Though not eye-shaped as the title suggests, the mirror does seem to see everything.).
But it’s grief, not youthful stupidity, fueling Kaylie’s quest. She wants to avenge her parents, whom she believes the mirror drove crazy. Scenes of a grown-up Kaylie and Tim vs. the mirror carry tension regarding the immediate questions of whether they can outwit it, but also emotion, since they are not doing it for themselves.
Kaylie believes the mirror brainwashed her father, who grew lethargic and dead-eyed (Cochrane appears to be entranced). The mirror was in cahoots with the OFG, who was sweet on the dad and wanted the mom out of there.
Sackhoff brings real soul to her performance as the family member subjected to the most physical abuse. She and Gillan stand out, but the whole cast ably furthers the story, including Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as younger Kaylie and Tim.
The performances help hold our interest through a stretch where not much overt horror happens, as Kaylie sets up cameras and lights to record the mirror’s actions and waits for movement.
This stretch builds a sense of anticipation that pays off when Flanagan puts his editing skills to great use in thrilling montages. Scenes move seamlessly from past to present, making it difficult for Kaylie, Tim and the audience to discern what’s old, what’s new and what’s real or not.
Most horror films prefer jump scares to the long game of “Oculus.” So it’s easy to forget, until this film reminds you, that horror can wrap you up in a story like no other genre.