Film Review: Oculus

Based on a 2002 short written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Seidman and favoring slow-burn suspense over 'Gotcha!' shocks and gore, this modern-day haunting tale reunites two adults damaged by the literal ghosts of their childhood.

In 2002, the thoroughly ordinary Russell family moved into a charming brick house in a neighborly suburb. Their new furnishings include an 18th-century mirror in an elaborately carved, black-wood frame. Within a year, both parents were dead and their children, ten-year-old Timothy (Garrett Ryan) and 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso), separated: She went into foster care, and the traumatized boy was sent to a mental-health facility.

Eleven years later, Timothy (Brenton Thwaites) has just turned 21 and is reunited with his sister (Karen Gillan), now employed by a high-end art auction house and engaged to Michael (James Lafferty), who's not only drop-dead handsome but unceasingly supportive. Though briskly competent and ferociously self-possessed, Kaylie too is still suffering the aftereffects of what happened to their parents (night terrors aren't the half of it)—which by the way, she and Tim remember very differently.

Fresh off a decade of therapy designed to free him from the delusion that his parents' deaths had something to do with that creepy mirror, Tim now echoes the official story: Their dad, Alan (Rory Cochrane), went crazy and tortured their mom, Marie (Katee Sackoff, of TV's “Battlestar Galactica”), to death, then killed himself. But Kaylie still blames what she now knows is called the Lasser Glass, named after its first recorded owner and the first person to die and/or kill while the mirror was in his or her possession. Her research has documented 13 such examples, ranging from child murder to grotesque self-mutilation, and she's decided that the mirror must die. Not for the first time, either: As children she and Tim tried, unsuccessfully, to shatter it with their dad's golf clubs. So she set about tracing the chain of ownership, bought the mirror and installed it in their old home which, as is not infrequently the case with murder houses, proved so hard to sell that she gave up. Can any good come of this decision to go head-to-head with evil?

I think we all know the answer to that question, especially since there wouldn't be much of a movie if the Lasser Glass just laid down and died when faced with the fancy-schmancy setup Kaylie has assembled to end its reign of terror and record its demise. But that said, Oculus (which is Latin for "eye"), is a tight, well-scripted addition to the horror-film history of haunted mirrors, of which the most renowned is the middle segment of 1945 compendium Dead of Night. Oculus benefits greatly from strong performances by both the adult and child casts, and the way in which the past and present stories are intercut skillfully creates a sense that the barrier between them is collapsing, as present-day Kaylie and Tim become increasingly aware that the Lasser Glass is more powerful and devious that either of them imagined. If your taste in horror runs Saw-wise, it might seem a little tame, but if you prefer a slow burn and a muted but suitably grim payoff, Oculus should be your cup of bitter tea.

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