Oculus is a reflective horror flick

Horror movies about possessed evil objects don’t have the greatest pedigree. The subcategory of movies about killer mirrors is even worse. To wit: there’s Alexandre Aja’s slog Mirrors a woeful entry in the Amityville Horror series and then the forgettable Cajun-themed mystery The Skeleton Key .

Oculus is by far the best killer mirror movie I’ve ever seen and I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. (Well maybe just a bit.) It’s a jumpy scare-fest that recalls old-school haunted house flicks in the best way — at least until it horribly derails in an ugly nihilistic third act. In this genre you take what you can get.

Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) is a troubled (dare I say “haunted”) young woman and for good reason. Her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is also pretty screwed up. When they were only precocious tweenagers their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) went totally bonkers torturing and murdering their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff). It was a nasty violent affair ending with missing teeth and fingernails and young Tim shooting his crazy papa to death.

The whole thing is assumed to be a bad domestic situation gone wildly wrong but Kaylie knows better. See her dad had purchased an antique mirror for his home office and Kaylie is absolutely completely positive that it holds vengeful ghosts that murder whomever is lucky or dumb enough to possess it. The mirror looks so hilariously overwrought and sinister that it’s a wonder anyone would want to own it. Anyway Kaylie is totally right; in one nifty sequence she delivers a snappy monologue tracing the diabolical history of the mirror and the many people it has killed back to a hundreds-year-old aristocrat that had the unfortunate distinction of being its first victim.

The film flips back and forth in time showing Kaylie and Tim attempting to beat the killer mirror at its own game while filling us in on the tragic events that destroyed their family. Adult Kaylie conveniently works for an auction company that’s set to sell the mirror and she “borrows” it for an experiment in ghost killing. She and Tim return to their old childhood home (fun!) and set up a series of recording devices and traps hoping to sucker the ghost into revealing itself. This includes a spring-loaded trap made out of a giant trowel; you just know some poor soul is getting it by the end of the film.

A film like this is all about shadows and foregrounds and director Mike Flanagan is adept at both filling the screen with plenty of classic scares and shocks. (I can’t think of many modern horror flicks that shoot as many wide reveal-all compositions as he does here.) He cleverly teases out concurrent threads of the film past and present and both remain cohesive and eye-catching. Until the film takes a serious nose-dive in the final act it feels more like a psychological thriller masquerading as a ghost story. In style and tone it resembles the film The Legend of Hell House (based on Richard Matheson’s novel) about a ghost-busting adventure gone awry complete with a thudding synthy ’80s score.

It’s all good fun until the film loses its quiet confidence and turns vicious and stupid. Oculus is the rare genre flick that suffers from extra scenes of torturous body horror and gallons of Karo Syrup blood. It’s as if the studio had to add a few extra nasty scenes to ensure fan co-operation resulting in a denouement that’s rushed and stupid. Everybody dies blah blah blah. Sometimes a few desiccated plants half-glimpsed ghosts and creepy shadows do the trick.

Like I say Oculus is a mostly solid scary flick that has an edge on the typical slick horror junk out there.

OCULUS directed by Mike Flanagan starring Karen Gillan Brenton Thwaites and Katee Sackhoff