Like a good omelet, a horror movie depends on a few reliable ingredients seasoned with one or two fresh ideas and served by a chef with a personal flair. Novelty and complexity may not be needed, as we see in the simple, satisfying “Oculus.” (The title, which merely means “eye,” is the most highfaluting thing about it.)
Writer-director Mike Flanagan starts with a familiar concept: A haunted mirror spreads suffering across the centuries, until it comes into the Russell household. Soon mother Marie and father Alan (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochran) have died, and authorities blame their son, Tim.
Eleven years later, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) comes out of a mental institution with an optimistic diagnosis from his doctor. Sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) badgers him into joining her in a paranormal experiment that may prove the mirror’s deadly nature.
I could fill the rest of this review with unanswered questions. What made the mirror so malevolent from the start? If Tim has been forgiven and restored to society, why risk his sanity by making him relive horrible incidents? Kaylie knows the mirror can’t be smashed by a human – it psychologically thwarts attacks – so she rigs a destruction mechanism to shatter it, should something happen to her and Tim. Why not just turn that device on and walk away?
Flanagan bypasses these concerns with stylish direction and cutting. (He edited the film, too.) He pulls off the usual “don’t look behind you” scares any competent filmmaker can muster, but he cleverly intertwines the Russells’ past and present lives.
A knock on a door may plunge the movie audience into a similar setting 11 years ago or snap us back to the current day. Characters can’t be sure what’s real or a fantasy, as current fears and painful memories intertwine. Eventually – sorry, I can’t resist – the past and present mirror each other. (I was reminded of another horror movie where reality and delusion twist around each other, the underrated “1408.”)
Good acting by the four principals, plus Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as the younger Tim and Kaylie, makes the characters sympathetic. Cochran’s especially disturbing in his matter-of-fact way, because amiability and madness seem so close together.
Flanagan never overplays his hand with gore or cheap thrills; some of the grisliest elements come when Kaylie studies photographs of the mirror’s long-dead victims. The creatures who hover about her ill-fated house have glowing eyes and twisted smiles, but there’s also something a bit pathetic about a couple of them.
Co-writer Jeff Howard and Flanagan adapted the director’s own 2006 short “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man With the Plan.” That one runs a third as long as the feature, also contains characters named Tim and Alan Russel (with one “l” back then) and even has some of the same dialogue: “I have met my demons, and they are many. I have seen the devil, and he is me.”
Like many horror directors, Flanagan felt he could build a feature-length film around his brief idea. Unlike many, he was right.