Locked away in an institution for 11 years, charged with the murder of his father, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is finally released when his doctor is satisfied that the young man has overcome delusions that the murder was committed under the influence of a mind-affecting mirror. Upon his release Tim is reunited with his older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) who, without the intrusion of a medical professional, still believes that the night that saw the death of both her parents was caused by a supernatural antique mirror that alters the mental state of anyone exposed to if for a prolonged time. Kaylie has been waiting for Tim's release so that together they can finally destroy the mirror for good, and plans to document their attempts in order to expose the power of the mirror and exonerate her brother.
Oculus begins as a sequel. Kaylie has survived a traumatic childhood living with parents under the influence of the mirror, and now has tracked it down and plans to destroy it before it can hurt anyone else. Gillan captures Kaylie's determination and desperation, portraying her with a confidence that is infectious. This is a girl so assured in her beliefs that it is hard not to get caught up in her story, especially as she recounts all the evidence she has uncovered of the mirror's bloody past. It is a refreshingly different approach to the structure of a horror film of this kind; we begin with a full knowledge of the mirror's supposed powers and history and as the film continues we are made to question whether something supernatural is actually happening or if Kaylie really is suffering the same delusions that the doctors believed her brother was.
Interwoven with this story are the events of Kaylie and Tim's childhood that led to the night in which both of their parents were killed and Tim was incarcerated. This storyline contains much more familiar haunted house fare, as the family move into a new home and bring with them the recently bought antique mirror. It doesn't take long before plants start dying and their dog starts acting up, then a young Kaylie, played by the brilliant Annalise Basso, spies a strange woman in her dad's office and suspicion, paranoia and aggression builds between the kid's parents. As traditional as this story is, it is the way in which director Mike Flanagan masterfully intercuts between this timeline and the other that makes it so effective. The mirror's power lies in it's ability to distort reality, what the characters believe they are doing or seeing may not actually be what they believe.This principle is extended to the films structure as the two story lines entwine so tightly that it becomes impossible for the viewer to distinguish past from present, illusion from truth.
The film also rejects the notion that loud noises should always accompany frightening images. Jump scares are an effective technique in horror, but are used so relentlessly nowadays that they feel cheap and it has even become quite easy to recognise when they are about to happen. Oculus proves, right from it's opening scene, that a quick glimpse of something horrific doesn't need a loud noise to make it any more effective and because of this the film boasts a much stronger atmosphere than many others. Something horrible could appear at any moment and there will be no lull in the score to pre-warn you, this enhances the film's creepy mood tenfold. Of course there are one or two exceptions to this, but using jump-scares in moderation is how you retain their impact and Flanagan clearly understands this.
Oculus is a clever, refreshing horror film, placing a greater importance on telling it's story than just increasing the viewer's heart rate for a few seconds at a time. It's biggest successes arise from the ambiguity of it all; is the mirror really possessed and capable of such evil or have these characters created a false reality from the clouded memories of their horrific past, are we witnessing the actual events or the illusion, is that illusion the result of the mirror or the broken minds of our protagonists. The film isn't ready to give up any answers and it is all the stronger for it.