As far as horror movie antagonists go, a homicidal wall-mounted mirror is pretty iffy. It’s hard to build tension when the villain could be killed by a baseball.
But OCULUS is up to the task. We follow Kaylie (Karen Gillan), a young woman obsessed with documenting an allegedly haunted mirror’s supernatural powers before destroying it. She’s rigged her parents’ old house with video cameras, alarms, and even a last-resort “kill switch” in the form of a swinging yacht anchor bolted to the ceiling. Excessive? Not really. For her, it’s personal – eleven years ago, her parents purchased the evil antique and went murderously insane. Her brother Tim was institutionalized after being forced to shoot his father, so this is present-day Kaylie’s chance to prove Tim’s innocence. These parallel stories melt into one as the mirror’s powers grow, blurring past into present and raising disturbing questions. Did Kaylie and Tim ever really grow up? Or are they losing their minds, too?
OCULUS toys with these ideas but doesn’t overdo it. Luckily, the script is too disciplined to lose its head up its own butt via INCEPTION-style plot convolutions. It’s a superb little ghost story that favors smart, psychological chills over loud noises and arterial splatters (although it has those, too). Because the mirror influences what its victims can and can’t see, even moments of apparent safety can hide horrific surprises. Imagine biting into an apple – and realizing it’s actually a light bulb when the shards crunch between your bloody teeth. This movie perfectly captures the icky discomfort of never quite knowing what’s real.
Karen Gillan makes a strong lead. Many horror films simply dump oblivious characters into harm’s way like it’s feeding time for whatever monster is named in the title, but Kaylie is scrappy, intelligent, and seemingly prepared for everything. It’s not until later, when there’s no turning back, that she realizes how badly she underestimated her enemy. As we learn that the mirror can hijack human thoughts (its other hobbies include killing houseplants and eating dogs), we begin to wonder if Kaylie’s myopic obsession is really of her own free will – or if it’s just another fishhook the mirror planted in her brain eleven years ago. Who’s targeting who?
Heck, a better title might’ve been: SERIOUSLY GUYS, JUST LEAVE THE MIRROR ALONE. This is a bleak story about puny humans tangling with an entity that exists beyond time, and Kaylie’s plan is, at best, a three-dimensional solution to a four-dimensional problem. Guess how well that goes.
For all its first-rate chills, OCULUS does need you to occasionally meet it halfway. Big chunks of the plot are open to interpretation and the mirror itself is never explained. There’s no origin story. It wasn’t bullied by the other mirrors in Fred Meyer’s home décor section or anything. It’s just evil.
But why dilute fear with logic? Accept this movie for what it is and you’ll find a nightmare worth having – a classy, devilishly entertaining creepshow that just wants to mess with your head.
And ruin apples forever.