It’s easy enough to jolt an audience into submission, but that’s not the same thing as getting under its skin. Recent horror movies ranging from the “Paranormal Activity” series to “The Conjuring” excel at the art of the jump scare, though no matter how expertly delivered, it’s a cheap gimmick at best.
“Oculus” is an exception. Appropriately being co-released by microbudget fear factory Blumhouse Production — its founder, Jason Blum, helped turn the scrappy productions “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge” into profitable franchises — much of the new movie’s chilly atmosphere involves the experiences of two characters in a room with one very ominous mirror. As the haunted object plays tricks on its two would-be victims’ minds, the audience falls prey to the ruse as well. Director Mike Flanagan turns the fragile nature of consciousness into a better fear tactic than any visceral shocks could possibly achieve.
“Oculus” certainly relies on a familiar toolbox, including the occasional clichéd moment when something scary materializes right behind an unsuspecting character. But the specifics of the scenario engender a fundamental state of dread that grows heavier with each murky twist. Flanagan’s script, co-written by Jeff Howard and based on an earlier short film, nimbly moves between events that transpired 11 years ago and their ramifications in the present: In the opening scenes, 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a psychotherapy ward after years on lockdown and reunited with his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). With a steely resolve, she announces that the pair must return to the childhood home and “kill it” — a declaration that immediately establishes a menacing supernatural presence that remains hard to define throughout the movie.
But Flanagan quickly fills in a few more pertinent details: The siblings’ youth was disrupted with the arrival of the mirror into the claustrophobic study where their father (Rory Cochrane) worked alone; at some point, maybe because of his own lapsing sanity or maybe because the mirror drove him mad, their ill-fated father murdered their mother (Katee Sackhoff), at which point young Tim shot him dead. Kaylie has been waiting for her brother to reemerge into society so the two of them can confront the bizarre ancient menace, which is apparently responsible for 48 deaths in 400 years. As soon as he’s free, she snatches up the mirror at a local auction and brings him back to the scene of the crime, with camcorders set up to capture their every move over the course of one isolated, dreary night. In short order, plenty of things go bump in the night, but it’s gradually clear that nothing happening can be taken for granted, including Kaylie and Tim’s own behaviors. At its best, “Oculus” is a tightly enacted chamber drama that just happens to include supernatural phenomena. The mirror is messing with them at every turn — and, by extension, it’s messing with us.
As the plot constantly shifts between modern day events and Kaylee and Tim’s childhood experiences as they witnessed their parents’ lapsing sanity, “Oculus” becomes an effective allegory for the lingering trauma of familial dysfunction. The small ensemble meshes nicely with the sophisticated narrative approach: Thwaits, as the grown brother, maintains a credibly frightened demeanor as he worries that he might be going crazy all over again; Gillian, playing the Mulder to Thwaits’ Scully, continually strikes the calculated pose of a true believer even as her own insecurities slowly take over. Their collective fears of the unknown turn this rather basic premise into a sneakily profound meditation on more realistic concerns.
The first sign that “Oculus” has more on its mind arrives as the adult Tim attempts to shrug off his sister’s recollections of supernatural occurrences with the “fuzzy trace” theory of human psychology — essentially, false memories derived from inaccurate associations: In Tim’s view, their dad was an unfaithful lunatic — hence the cryptic presence of another woman in his study after hours — and eventually went ballistic on his wife as a result of their marital tensions. His kids’ convictions about the nature of these events, the thinking goes, suggest a history of mental illness in the family.
And who’s to say whether Tim has it right? As the duo creep around the house, evading passing shadows and lashing out blindly in the wrong directions, it’s never entirely clear if any given point of view holds ground. “Oculus” keeps digging further into their frightened state, thickening the dreary atmosphere at every turn, so that even while the outcome of the scenario is fairly predictable early on, it’s continually haunting as it maps out a path to get there. A truly contemporary horror movie, its eeriness stems from manipulated cell phone conversations and recorded data on the ubiquitous cameras that may or may not accurately represent events as they transpire. No matter how much technology they have on their side, nothing in certain.
The two-pronged progression doesn’t make things any easier. Past and present continue to merge as this pair of unreliable narrators wander through memories and attempt to act faster than the mirror can anticipate. The ongoing sense of ambiguity is distinctly cinematic, forcing viewers to question whether any given moment actually takes place. (One grisly bit, in which Kaylee bites into an apple and temporarily believes she’s chewing on a lightbulb by mistake, harkens back to the infamous “face peeling” hallucination in “Poltergeist.”) The very act of watching movies calls into question the way we process reality; “Oculus,” for all its familiar scares, expertly capitalizes on this fundamental power.
In recent years, few American genre films have managed the extreme spookiness found in many of their overseas brethren. Even while “Oculus” plays by the book in individual moments, it manages to invent a shrewder context for the events in question. It’s not the scenes that matter so much as the way they do (and don’t) fit together. It uses subjectivity like a weapon. By contrast, last year’s generally well-liked haunted house effort “The Conjuring” capably grappled with issues of faith, but failed to unite its bigger ideas with the rudimentary process for freaking us out.
In “Oculus,” the horror is at once deceptively simple and rooted in a deep, primal uneasiness. Its scariest aspects are universally familiar: By witnessing the two leads fall prey to the ghastly object’s manipulation, we too become its victims. Reflecting the way our greatest fears lie within our own insecurities, the mirror is an ideal metaphor for the horror genre’s lasting potency.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Relativity opens “Oculus” nationwide this weekend. With little competition, it should find respectable returns among the sizable audience for horror films, although its primary audience lies on VOD, where it should be successful for a long time.
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