The “it was just a dream” sequence is one of the most popular (and most obnoxious) fake-outs in modern horror. You know the kind I'm talking about: a woman finds herself trapped in a room with a monster, the monster lunges at her and the woman wakes up in a cold sweat. Of course, she'll undoubtedly find herself in a similar situation at some point in the next act, but for now, it was just a dream. The haunted-mirror thriller Oculus employs variations on this scene early and often, then continues to do so until the lines between reality and fantasy are so thoroughly blurred that we lose track of which is which. It's a cleverly disorienting story technique, but you'll have to accept the fact that Oculus often substitutes cleverness for genuine chills.
In 2002, the Russell family underwent a horrifying ordeal. Patriarch Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane, Argo) experienced a psychological meltdown, torturing and killing his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff, Battlestar Galactica) and traumatizing his children Kaylie (Annalise Basso, Standing Up) and Tim (Garrett Ryan, Insidious: Chapter 2). Flash-forward to 2013, where we find Kaylie (now played by Karen Gillan, Doctor Who) and Tim (now played by Brendan Thwaites, Maleficent) as troubled adults. Tim has spent the past decade in a mental institution, but is finally being released after convincing doctors that he has overcome his demons. Meanwhile, Kaylie has become attached to a dark conspiracy theory of sorts: that an old mirror is the source of the Russell family's misery.
For its first hour or so, Oculus takes its cues from The Exorcist, methodically running down the list of possible natural explanations for everything that's happening. The approach is a familiar one at this point, but still effective as long as the writers are playing fair. Rationality and reason are given their day in court, and for a good while we're genuinely uncertain about whether the movie we're watching is about a murderous mirror or mental illness (or both). Director Mike Flanagan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Howard) wrings a good deal of tension out of this uncertainty, but eventually lands on a definitive answer (I'll give you one guess) and allows the rest of the movie to play out as a slick but conventional display of bloody haunted house tropes (the house itself isn't actually haunted, but it might as well be – we're told the mirror has a roughly house-sized “radius of influence”).
The performances rarely rise above the level of “functional” (the exception: Sackhoff's affecting, distraught turn as an increasingly heartbroken mother), but the real star is Flanagan's editing. It's not uncommon for horror movies to employ relevant flashbacks to fill in key plot details, but Flanagan frames Oculus as two movies unfolding simultaneously. Late in the proceedings, the past and the present begin to bleed into each other in a variety of interesting ways, as cast members from the 2002 and 2013 plot strands begin to leap into each other's worlds (usually as a result of the mirror's mental manipulations). The film's structure smartly reflects the mental state of its characters, refusing to let the audience regard the whole thing from a distance. At times, I was reminded of James Wan's The Conjuring – another recent horror movie that effectively covered its familiar elements with slick craftsmanship.
Still, the movie isn't scary, and that's undoubtedly going to be a deal breaker for a lot of horror fans. The most unsettling moments manages to provide a sense of vague unease (and there's one memorably mortifying sequence involving an apple), but the movie is more of a narrative puzzle box than a cinematic nightmare factory. It's a consistently engaging watch, but it's unlikely to make anyone think twice about looking in the mirror.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 2013