Overview: Two sibling survivors try to prove the supernatural influence of an antique mirror they hold responsible for their parents’ deaths. Relativity Media, 2014, Rated R, 105 Minutes.
Unreliable Narrators: Classic goth king Edgar Allen Poe championed the technique in stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart“ and “The Black Cat”: offering the voice of a narrator whose unstable mind increasingly loses our trust. But even as the pioneer of this tension-building narrative strategy, there is no way even Poe could have foreseen the extremely layered application established in Oculus. As survivors of a tragic family murder, we know immediately that trauma informs the memories of Tim and Kaylie Russell (Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan). Tim has been treated institutionally and seems to filter things through something that resembles rationale, but we never really buy into it. And from the moment a tracking shot follows her swinging ponytail into an auction room where she stares menacingly at an antique mirror, Kaylie’s obsession places her in our distrust. And on top of that, there is another narrative layer and an even less trustworthy narrator: the film itself.
An Assault of Confusion: The movie starts with a familiar construction, two back-and-forth plot chronologies. The earlier storyline focuses on adolescent Tim and Kaylie and the days leading up to the murder. The second focuses on the events after their reunion when Tim is released from the psychiatric facility and they seek revenge against the mirror they blame for their parents’ deaths. But as the film progresses, the seams break and the stories bleed into one another. Sharp camera cuts move scenes jarringly from one storyline into the next. The child actors share frames and rooms and stairways with their adult counterparts. Moreover, because of what is either the malevolent manipulation of reality by the mirror or the psychological damage of the siblings, objects that seem to be present are not, objects that are not present seem present, and we see entire events that do not happen according to the cameras Kaylie has positioned to document the revenge. I can not extend enough praise to director Mike Flanagan: I have never seen a movie that uses confusion so effectively as a tool of terror. How fitting that in a movie so fixated on experimenting with perception, the main antagonist is a mirror (the most frightening evil inanimate object in movie history, by the way. I’m calling it).
Traditional Horror: This movie has moments like those obsessed over by modern horror failures — jump scares, gross outs, haunting entities floating in the background — but it earns its right to use every single one. The story and the camerawork are deliberate and masterful. Nothing comes cheap. When I inducted The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in my mind the best horror movie of all time, into our list of The Greats, I described that film as “a complete affront and total subversion of the enjoyable movie going experience (as all great horror wishes itself to be).” That description, for different reasons, is true of Oculus as well. This may be the most stressful movie experience I have had since my first watch of Hooper’s masterpiece. Oculus is a perfect horror movie.