Oculus reveals what’s scary about the human perspective, and it brings the act of watching the movie to the fore of experiencing the movie.
The best horror movies—even those with roaming zombies, bloodthirsty monsters and supernatural spooks—are the ones that concern themselves with more earthbound, real-life fears. Michael Myers is the looming, brooding shape that stalks Laurie Strode in Halloween, but John Carpenter’s classic derives just as much dread from suburban malaise and social alienation; with his masterful zombie cycle, George Romero emphasized the fear that established cultural institutions like the nuclear family and consumerism will prove meaningless amid major catastrophe and societal breakdown; and Val Lewton’s historic RKO pictures, particularly the Jacques Tourneur triptych (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) and The Seventh Victim are deeply concerned with the mysteries of human behavior.
Oculus (2014), an early Blumhouse Productions chiller directed by Netflix’s resident horror maestro Mike Flanagan (Hush, Gerald’s Game, “The Haunting of Hill House”), speaks specifically to a pair of common anxieties—one timely, another sadly timeless. Flanagan, who would use the film to cement himself as one of the very best horror directors working today, weaves these emotions into genre mechanics and film style with considerable elegance, providing an empathetic depth to scenes of extreme fear and foreboding dread. The two-pronged narrative demonstrates how traumatic experiences tend to echo across generations, and Flanagan, who also edited the movie, uses skillful cross-cutting and framing techniques to collapse time and space, calling attention to the omnipresent nature of trauma and the way it pervades our lives long after we’ve “processed” it.
Discussing what happens in Oculus is tricky, and not because of spoilers, but because the two storylines are interwoven so deliberately and intricately. It mainly focuses on twenty-something siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) as they reunite in their childhood home a decade after their parents turned into homicidal maniacs and tried to murder them. Kaylie is convinced that an antique mirror in her father’s office was the cause—through extensive research, she learns that all the previous owners have died disturbing deaths. To prove her theory, she sets up a network of security cameras in the house to document the mirror’s otherworldly powers, but Tim, who has spent the past 10 years in a juvenile detention center after killing the father in self-defense, remains skeptical, insisting that she’s constructed a supernatural fantasy to explain how their parents went crazy.
Via intermittent flashbacks, we’re shown what happened in the house and given clues as to what might have caused the family’s breakdown, and it’s clear that both sides have their points. But then the spooky stuff starts to happen. Over time, we’re not sure if the flashbacks are actually flashbacks, or waking nightmares created by the mirror and experienced in the present, or an extreme case of shared delusion, or the ghosts of their pasts literally back to haunt them. Oculus is a clear allegory for the vulnerability of children during incidents of domestic violence, and it also offers a critique of the millennial-era notion that we can somehow become neutral observers of our own lives if we document every second of them. One way the mirror seems to terrorize the siblings is by making them hallucinate disturbing scenarios, while some of the more subtle scares happen when they find themselves unable to locate proof of events that they (and we) believe to have happened. Flanagan tends to cut away from some of the grislier moments only to reveal that the whole thing was just a vision or a vivid memory, and he merges past and present events to create a sort of suspended state that dislodges the audience from the temporal logic established in the film’s early scenes.
The most remarkable thing about Oculus is how cohesive it is. As the two timelines overlap, and the adult siblings start interacting with people and events from their childhood, Flanagan maintains a thematic through line, illustrating how victims of childhood trauma tend to relive and relitigate their experiences again and again. The director has a particular interest in this subject. He explores it and similar ideas in “The Haunting of Hill House” and the other projects he’s made for Netflix, as well as the very underrated Ouija: Origins of Evil, whose climactic sequence adopts a similar storytelling model seen here. But in Oculus, specifically, having concepts of past and present removed from the experience is an alternately exhilarating and horrifying sensation, and it allows the director to operate in an ambiguous space, with ambiguity being another of his key interests. The film’s watchability and sort of “mainstream” visual approach belies its elusive nature. There are points in Oculus where there’s no real indication of where you are or what you’re seeing; there’s no sense that it’s any more or less “real” than an image you might see, well, on a movie screen.
Indeed, despite Flanagan’s pronounced taste for the vague and ambiguous (In a defense of Hush that he posted on Facebook, the director proclaimed, “When it comes to horror, I strongly believe two things to be true: 1) What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do, and 2) The explanation is never as satisfying as the question.”), his work also has a self-reflexive quality normally reserved for the arthouse set. Oculus bears a striking resemblance to the Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating, whose narrative overlaps and doubles back in a similar fashion, exploring the nature of shared experiences and the way memories can feel as alive as present sensations. The French translation of “go boating” is “aller en bateau,” a slang term that roughly means “caught up in fiction,” and it’s an apt description for the journey Rivette’s characters take in the movie. Kaylie and Tim embark in a similar, albeit more macabre odyssey in Oculus that forces them question their present, and whether or not their present can actually be called the present.
That’s where the mirror, itself, becomes so crucial to unlocking the film. It’s not that the mirror is haunted—nothing’s inherently scary about a haunted mirror. Flanagan is channeling the ubiquity and impression of mirrors and openly questioning the ontology of reflection. To look into a mirror is to base one’s image—one’s concept of one’s self—on an imperfect picture. We take objectivity for granted when we look in the mirror (or at our smartphones, the so-called “black mirror,” in keeping with Netflix parlance). We don’t consider the faults in the glass, or the distortion of light. Mirrors don’t reflect reality, and neither does cinema. With this idea firmly in mind, Oculus reveals what’s scary about the human perspective, and it brings the act of watching the movie to the fore of experiencing the movie. It’s what happens when you see the reflection, and the reflection sees you back.