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There are many good things to be said for OCULUS, first and foremost of which is that is terrifying. As much a psychological consideration of the powerlessness of childhood as a ghost story of striking originality, it eschews cliché in favor of finding new ways to horrify audiences jaded with the genre. The supernatural element, while suitably scary, is the least unsettling element at work here as moves seamlessly between reality and illusion, the past and the present, and various manifestations of madness.
The story centers on Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Jim (Brenton Thwaites), siblings reunited 11 years after their father murdered their mother in a particularly gruesome fashion when Kaylie was 12 and Jim 10. Kaylie went into foster care, while Jim has spent the intervening years sentenced to a mental hospital for having killed his father, albeit in self-defense. At least he was getting help. Kaylie has been on her own as far as dealing with what happened, and now that Jim is free, and fate has cooperated, she is planning on working out her issues by proving that Jim wasn’t responsible for the murder. The elaborate plan involves the murder house, an intricate set of surveillance cameras, temperature detectors, and the kidnapping of what Kaylie considers to be the true culprit: an ornate antique mirror with, according to Kaylie, four centuries worth of corpses to its credit.
The last words that Jim’s doctor had for him were to protect his recovery. The film becomes as much clinging to the delicate lifeline of sanity as it is about ghosts, and this is why it is so very deeply disturbing. Notions of fuzzy memories that the human mind will use to protect itself from memories too terrible to process vie with what may or may not be proof of something evil lurking in the mirror. Or is it just Kaylie’s unhinged mind that has driven her to such extremes? The film does not remain coy on that issue for long, though it does toy with the audience the way Kaylie is convinced that the mirror toys with its victims, even after the film has established who is right and who is wrong. People from the past, including the siblings’ childhood selves, move more and more freely in the present and vice-versa. What is real becomes purely a matter of the perception rather than anything remotely objective, from the previously loving father (Rory Cochran) calling his beautiful wife (Katee Sackhoff) a grotesque monster, to her suspicions of adultery, to exactly what it is that is beckoning from the mirror or what it is that Kaylie is snacking on in the present as part of a strict (insanely strict?) eating schedule she has devised in order to keep up her strength for the battle with the mirror.
Director/co-writer Mike Flanagan has a sure hand when it comes to building the requisite suspense, dwelling on just the right details for just the right amount of time. He infuses the film with a dream-like quality eminently suitable for a film about protagonists whose ability to differentiate reality from fugue state is compromised. He finds as much menace in a father’s disinterest in whether his children have food in the house as he does when that same father picks up a firearm and begins stalking those same children. The mood is dark, the performances intense but not ostentatious, making the pure fear of the piece all the more primal in its nature.
OCULUS is an intelligent horror film that transcends its genre. Compulsion, monomania, the endless variations from what we collectively call “normal” all come in for slick, but never glib, examination with a dizzying but carefully constructed cognitive dissonance that chills to the bone not for the fantasy, but for the way it resonates with the maddeningly imprecise nature of subjective perception. My only regret is that it might spawn a series of sequels that will devolve into increasingly shallow knock-offs of its progenitor, sacrificing eerie and subliminal for the crassness of mere shock and gore.