World Cup! Now I’ve got your attention, here’s a review of a new horror film about a haunted mirror. Oculus opens with 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) being released from a psychiatric hospital, having suffered a traumatic childhood experience and now ready to move on with his life. But his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has other ideas, determined to destroy the creepy old mirror she blames for their disturbing past. But is the mirror really haunted, or is Kaylie just crazy? I wonder…
Karen Gillan, haunted mirror, children… it sounds like a recipe for an episode of Doctor Who, back when it was good. But crack the surface of this Hollywood horror flick and it’s clear that it’s not really about a haunted mirror at all. It’s about domestic violence, a theme that has previously concerned such genre gems as The People Under the Stairs and The Woman. This thematic foundation helps Oculus to stand out from its contemporaries, delivering distressing drama that’s infinitely more rewarding than the superficial un-scares of James Wan.
The characters at the film’s core elevate it further, particularly Kaylie, a final girl in the true horror tradition. Rather than a victim running around while looking pretty, she’s resourceful, intelligent and has a plan. While looking pretty. Karen Gillan brings believable personality to the character just as she did to Amy Pond, proving herself a formidable scream queen. The brilliant Rory Cochrane plays the father with just the right amount of Jack Torrance while Annalise Basso impresses as the young Kaylie, mainly because she naturally looks as though she’s just seen a ghost. Some of the other performances occasionally waver and the film falls back on familiar clichés, but they’re never gratuitous. Each jump-scare serves the plot, unlike the random string of CGI spooks in The Conjuring, which doesn’t even have a plot.
Oculus is a proper scary story, the past and present narratives playing out in terrifying tandem. The most terrifying tandem since that one Boris Johnson and Jeremy Paxman rode the other day. This narrative is superbly structured, with the childhood events unfolding alongside the immediate action in a sort of temporal nightmare. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan expands on his 2006 short film with a clear consideration generally lacking from a genre whose thought process tends not to pass the level of: “What if all crime was legal for 12 hours?”
This is more than just a throwaway chiller for fans of haunted mirrors and Karen Gillan’s hair. Rich in substance and eerie in execution, Oculus has intelligence, darkness and terror that belies its 15 rating. Certain moments are nail-wrenchingly nasty and tooth-shatteringly twisted, giving us some of the scariest stuff to come out of the mirror since Piers Morgan.