“I’ve seen the devil, and he is me,” intones Oculus’ Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane), prowling around in the dark and terrifying his family. After buying an antique mirror to decorate his home office, Alan sinks into a kind of madness, setting off a cycle of abuse that will haunt his children for the rest of their lives. Is the mirror to blame? Or is he just staring at his own reflection?
Director Mike Flanagan’s previous film, Absentia, was a creepy take on depression and grief made on a shoestring budget. His follow-up deals in similar themes of anguish and evil, but it’s more expensive, more confident and more polished. Oculus’ narrative is nightmarishly complicated, weaving its way through the memories of its characters as the grown-up kids (Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites) return to their childhood home to confront their demons.
What sets this apart from your average haunted-house movie is that it works as effectively as a creature feature about a monster as it does a psychological drama about the aftermath of abuse. Viewers are invited to draw their own conclusions, as Flanagan – who edited the film, as well as writing and directing it – cuts from the adult Russells to their younger selves to their parents and back again, all in the same scene.
The overall effect is dizzying, almost hallucinatory and, although the supernatural version of events is the harder sell, the performances, production design and writing make it impossible to decide one way or the other. But ambiguity is the point. The climax is as inevitable as it is devastating; though its characters might be losing their grip on reality, Oculus is a film completely in control of itself.
A heartbreaking exercise in creeping dread that’ll leave you feeling slightly nervous around mirrors for days (or longer…) afterwards.