Critic’s Corner: ‘Oculus’

When I was 12, my friends and I were obsessed with the mirror maze at the local mall. Every weekend, we’d beg our parents to take us “shopping” so we could wander through it over and over, giggling every time we bumped into a mirror we expected to be an exit. Giddy and tired, we’d leave the maze covered in minor bumps and bruises, and our eyes would have trouble adjusting to the real world—we saw illusions and dead ends everywhere.

I felt the same way when I walked out of “Oculus.” And I loved it.

“Oculus” tells the tale of two siblings who try to destroy an evil mirror they believe to be responsible for the tragic deaths of their parents. After 11 years in a psychiatric ward, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released to find that his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) plans to unearth the supernatural being haunting the mirror. But the experiment goes awry, and a series of illusions start playing fatal tricks on their minds.

At first glance, I was sure “Oculus” was yet another uninspired B-movie. I mean, it’s about an evil mirror, which is a tired premise, the actors are largely unknown, and director Mike Flanagan has done nothing of note. The trailer is riddled with clichéd lines like, “This isn’t real!” and “I’ve seen the devil!” spoken in frantic whispers between the grating hums of dubstep beats. But, within just 10 minutes of the film, I realized I too had been tricked. “Oculus” is not just another dumb story about a mirror on the wall; it is an entertaining, inventive and, dare I say, profound film.

At its core, “Oculus” is essentially one giant, unresolved metaphor for the unreliable nature of the human psyche. The evil mirror creates alternate realities of sorts, and the characters struggle to discern which experience is a mirage and which is factual. The same battle ensues within the character’s minds: both Kaylie and Tim doubt their traumatic childhood memories and wonder if their mirror scenario is just a delusion, an easier way for them to cope with their tragic past.

The beauty of “Oculus” is that this dilemma is never fully answered. The film’s elaborate “evil mirror” plot may really be the actual events unfolding on screen, but it’s probably not. We, too, might just be stuck inside the characters’ absurd delusion.

“Oculus” doesn’t just bend the mind—it bends traditional gender roles as well. As the brains behind the Russell siblings’ mission, Kaylie commands the film, while her brother serves as its damsel in distress. The sense of girl power running through the film is refreshing; horror movies are typically bereft of strong-willed women. Female characters are always burdened by their sexuality and the virgin is oftentimes the only one who emerges triumphant. Kaylie, in contrast, is anything but a doe-eyed virgin wiggling her way out of the villain’s clutches. Instead, she plays the classic tragic hero and her flaw is one traditionally considered to be masculine: excessive pride or, more accurately, overconfidence.

A final word of caution to horror fans: “Oculus” isn’t actually scary. I didn’t even jump once throughout the film’s duration and I felt fine looking straight into my mirror this morning. But, what the film lacks in scare tactics it makes up for in provocative and rewarding twists, not only in plot, but in perspective and time as well.

And “Oculus’s” rug pulling—just like those moments in the mirror maze when an exit turned out to be a dead end—is what makes all the film’s bumps and bruises worthwhile.