My girlfriend is afraid of mirrors once it’s dark. She’ll slink uneasily past them at night or throw a switch to blanket them in florescent light. When she’s staying in new places, she’ll turn foreign mirrors towards the wall before sleeping so they don’t dare reflect back under cover of dark. Early years spent reciting “Bloody Mary” have taken their toll.
Like a malevolent Cinderella story, once the clock strikes sundown, mirrors do take on an evil – or at least eerie – quality. In the absence of light, reflections don’t read true. Cast in shadow and peppered with hazy contortions, fear lives in not being able to see things clearly. It’s the absence of yourself – the shadowed dimples and half-worn portrait – in the mirror’s reflection that’s unsettling; the distortion of what ought be.
Years of horror shlock that made us shout, “Don’t close that mirror, there’s someone behind you!” – one of the oldest tricks in the book – have spoiled the mirror reveal. There’s always something that wasn’t there. Then it’s gone. We’ve been equally worn down on mirrored reflections changing their pantomime, refusing to mimic its subject and subsequently frightening them into a Hollywood favorite; the mouth-covering gasp. It’s old. Mirrors, in their slim margin of possibility, have been tilled into a desert of scares, all but relegated to the corner of slipshod horror no-no’s. Oculus sets to right the course.
Mousey children reciting folklore hymns have made the mirror the perfect vestige to express a cultural fear of the unknown and it’s this unknown that Oculus takes advantage of. While Obsidian mirrors date back to 6000 BC (Dragonstone mirrors? How could that not be creepy?), the mirror in question here looks oaken – strong, sturdy, old wood. It’s stained dark and carved with decadent inlay, curving and twisting like the horns of a demon. At first glance, it perfectly fits the part of haunted mirror, however absurd such a MacGuffin might be.
Though Oculus presents the fantasy of haunted mirrors as fact, it gives the audience credit in doubting said facts. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is the vessel for such doubt. After a traumatic event early in his and sister’s Kaylie’s (Karen Gillan) childhood, Tim is sent to a mental hospital to unlearn the “facts” that he had convinced himself of – that a haunted mirror possessed his father into killing his mother.
The stooges at the mental lockup have indoctrinated him otherwise (is there anything less trustworthy than a horror movie psychologist?) and his newfound predilection towards disbelief becomes the film’s first albatross. Kaylie sets out to show Tim that he was never crazy, having recently come into possession of the mirror and dead set on them destroying it once and for all.
But like anything haunted, it’s never as easy as just taking an axe to the thing and turning it to splinters. Instead, the mirror has a will of its own. And like the one ring to rule them all, it sets out to get what it wants by a form of unspoken mind control. Rory Cochrane as the father of the young siblings is the mirror’s first mark and his descend into madness harkens to the shuddersome ambiance of the Overlook. Emulating the best of Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance and the worst of sanity-slinking Jack Torrence, Cochrane’s performance is easy to have fun with. He is unsettling wallpaper as a vessel of psychological horror and domestic abuse both with his uneasy relationship with wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff) working to up the stakes scene to scene.
A tactful script from Mike Flanaghan (pulling double duties as director) saturates the reined-in proceedings with disqueting and sordid exposition. While Gillan’s airless portrait of Kaylie leaves little room for character growth, it paints a nimble picture of a sacrosanct devotee to her unpopular convictions. “What’s happening is real.” At least someone knows what’s going on. Like the great heroines of late, she’s a woman on a mission and listening to her report her findings is one of the many joys of Flanaghan’s insoluble narrative web.
Though Tim’s journey is more arc-y than Kaylie’s, his is underwhelmingly performed. So it’s a bit of a disappointment that the franchise’s future lay at his feet. It’s hard not to look at his situation and quiver though. It’s like a life lived practicing forced atheism only to stare God in the face. Shitty.
The best scenes in the movie are born of this somewhat novel idea of auto-voyueirsm – where the characters are watching themselves, unsure of whether they are where they think they are or if they’re trapped in the bodies that they’re looking at. It sounds confusing but Flanaghan makes it work well on screen. This crafty visual twist presents a Shrodinger’s Cat issue. Once the mirror takes hold, there’s no way to tell what’s make believe and what’s reality and that opens a lot of doors for the audience.
Flanaghan’s other great achievement is in the pacing department as he’s born a film that slides along like its riding KY Jelly roller-skates. It’s also unlikely to gross you out which can be a bit of a double-edged sword in the horror community, in that it will only slightly satisfy horror buff’s effusive need for bloodletting. Smartly, it’s always ranking the huh? over the gore.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s so terrifying that it slips into your dreams, taints your nightmares and has you looking cockeyed at creeks in the night. Oculus is not that film. Happy to be a well manicured vestige of frights, where dread prevails over scares, it’s pecking order rightly starts at the noggin. It’s more Psycho in nature than Scream, heralding suspense and mood building as models of import over attempts to sporadically lift you from you seat with a bump and a shout.
Oculus does for mirrors what Hitchcock did for showers. We’re not afraid of them, they’re just a little creepier now.