When Michael Jackson talked to the man in the mirror, he was asking him to change his ways. In “Oculus”, Karen Gillan’s character believes that a supernatural entity within the mirror of her childhood home is responsible for the disintegration of her family unit as a child, resulting in her brother’s eleven year incarceration in a mental institution. She has wasted a lot of time in her new found auction house job tracking down the mirror (and researching the history of its owners, one of whom died from dehydration after a 3 day bath) so she can go back to her former home and conduct experiments with her newly released and unwilling to participate brother. It’s safe to say things don’t go well for anybody- apart from Apple, whose computers are used for the experiment, and whose presence here (GIANT APPLE LOGOS EVERYWHERE) will continue to make Steve Jobs the richest corpse in town.
The narrative from eleven years earlier takes place simultaneously, in what starts off as one of the film’s greatest strengths; usually, when a horror movie contextualizes its narrative, its familiarity makes it less scary by default- after all, there is nothing more terrifying than what can’t be explained. Here, the dual narratives riding in tandem have the opposite effect, as neither timeline can conclusively describe the root cause of the phenomena, making it all the more intriguing due to the mythology the film builds around the haunted mirror.
Sadly, it does eventually get too silly for its own good (although the film ends pretty well, narratively speaking), but that it actually manages to provoke any scares at all is a cause for celebration. After all, we’re living in a time when the default horror movie setting is to overwhelm audiences with LOUD NOISES thanks to the “cattle-prod cinema” of films like Paranormal Activity, which can make audiences jump at the sound of a door opening just because of the sheer volume and not because it is in any way scary. There is only one of these jump-scares in Oculus, and its well earnt; after opening the film with a half hour of mythology building and no true indicator of the scares to come, this most traditional of scares pays off, and serves a purpose to the narrative, and not just to make the audience momentarily shit themselves in unison (although it should also do that). For the most part the film settles for being chilling over terrifying, which eventually works to the films detriment as the narrative gets more histrionic and the film-making style remains restrained.
Although the narrative is intentionally inconclusive, it still provides the biggest problem, with the dual timelines constantly wrestling with each other as the film draws to a close, becoming increasingly confusing when everything is happening. Admittedly, this allows the final 15 minutes to occur at a breakneck pace, allowing its silliest elements to work as effective scare-mongers as there isn’t any time for the audience to stop and think about how dumb it all is.
So, whilst being far from perfect, Oculus is often quite effective in its approach, and may be the best mainstream horror movie for quite some time- although that is damning with faint praise judging by today’s mainstream horror, when somebody shouting “BOO” at a camcorder can be considered terrifying.