I wouldn’t say that mirrors are particularly overused in horror films, though they have certainly featured. I recall a pretty run-of-the-mill film with Kiefer Sutherland a few years back, imaginatively titled “Mirrors”. This offering does a little better, lumping for the generalist “Oculus”. It wins bonus points, though, by not going for the tired cliche of “a mirror, darkly”, or any variations thereupon.
Actually, my first thought upon seeing the trailer for Oculus was of The Quiet Ones. Which isn’t a particularly auspicious start for a film. But there is entertainment in even a bad horror film, so off we popped to the cinema.
And, actually, it was rather good. Not perfect — which I’ll cover in a moment — but entertaining and much, much better than The
Poorly Named Ones Quiet Ones.
When Tim (Brenton Thwaites) gets out of a mental institute eleven years after a tragedy which killed his parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), his sister Kaylee (Karen Gillan) helps him rebuild his life. Except, Kaylee still thinks that a haunted mirror — the Lasser Glass — was behind the deaths, and having acquired the mirror plans to prove once and for all that there is a supernatural force within it — and then destroy it.
Paranormal investigation is one of the flavours of recent times when it comes to horror, but the mercy here is that we aren’t subjected to another half-baked found footage mockumentary. Instead, Oculus is a beautifully cut film which blends two stories into one and plays perfectly with the concept of not being able to trust what you can see.
And, actually, the way in which this film has been arranged, the way in which it tells the story, is it’s greatest triumph. Two timelines start off separate, the past told through flashbacks; but by the climax they are almost indistinguishable. The two child actors that they have picked to play the protagonists’ younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) do a great job, injecting tension to the developments.
Where I initially found it lacking was in the explanation of the mirror’s background. Whilst Kaylee has researched extensively the history of the mirror, all it amounts to on camera is a whistle-stop tour of previous victims. No facts or even speculation on the origins of the thing — which isn’t a per se fault, as I am a believer that less is more in horror films, but it jarred with the rest of Kaylee’s meticulous preparations. She doesn’t seem to have given any thought to why it is evil.
That said, in all other aspects Oculus hangs together very well. There is a fluid quality to it, the way it flows from reality to unreality so that the two are almost one. And there is the horror, a very idea-driven horror of which I whole-heartedly approve. What if the enemy can control your very perception? What if it hates you, and wants to destroy you? How do you kill it?
So Oculus is the right title. Because this isn’t about a mirror. The mirror is the vessel, as well as a pretty effective metaphor, and a source of “horror moments”. But this is actually a film about perception, and about how much you can trust what you can see. And of course, what you do when you can’t?
The other thing which bares mentioning is the performances. This is the first I’ve seen of Karen Gillan since she left Doctor Who, and though I expected that to jar, she was good, even managing a passable American accent. Rory Cochrane too, despite looking like a discount Danny Dyer, is tangibly creepy, disturbingly distracted to just plain disturbing.
I liked Oculus a lot. It was a more thoughtful than a lot of the horror films in the cinemas, eschewing the softly-softly-boo formula for some actually scary ideas. The climax is well executed, and there is an undercurrent of deep tragedy, festered over the years. Sanity is a malleable concept, and faced with a mirror which can contort what they see, the characters can only see themselves and their own experiences and mistakes reflected back at them.