Mama, have mercy

‘Oculus’ slices to the core

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Horror films are often peppered with moments in which you wish your protagonists were just a little more bright or had planned things out a little better — “Don’t go into that basement” and “Don’t open that door.” Even the beloved Shining leaves moments of, “Damn it, Wendy, pull it together.”

It is, at times, a comfort to believe that the horrific scenario would be survivable simply by being a little less stupid.

Oculus offers none of that mercy. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent a decade planning her revenge on an inanimate object, a 400-year-old mirror known as the Lasser Glass that hung in her family home. She believes it is the cause of the torture and brutal murder of her mother and her brother’s subsequent murder of their father. She has spent years studying the mirror and its techniques and planning for its tricks, and can enumerate its history and the bizarre deaths that have surrounded or befallen its previous owners.

Her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), has meanwhile spent the last 10 years in therapy to address the mental illness he says runs in their family.

When he’s finally released from protective custody, she immediately shuttles him back to their still-empty family home — because as the Ramseys can tell you, no one wants to buy a murder house — with a weekend’s worth of provisions, precautions and a meticulous plan for exonerating her family members and proving the mirror’s role in the deaths of some 45 people.

Having retrieved the Lasser Glass from the auction house where it awaits its newest owner, she hangs it again in the spot in their father’s study, and turns the video cameras on to record. Her goal: to document the ability of the supernatural forces within the mirror to kill and lure people into killing.

Because this is a horror film, not all goes according to plan.

The mirror’s evil is of the same insidious kind as The Shining’s Overlook Hotel — you are possessed before realizing a poison is taking over your mind. Its primary trick is to shift the perceptions of those in its proximity and Kaylie and Tim are rapidly sucked, once again, into a twisted reality that leaves Kaylie reciting the official horror movie mantra: It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not real.

The script, written by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) — who also directed — and Jeff Howard, braids together the family’s past and present tortures in a storyline that concurrently descends from dread to disaster. Cringe-worthy moments are delivered with just the right sound effects and a full commitment to it on the part of Gillan (BBC’s Dr. Who).

This Oculus is an expanded telling of the story from Flanagan’s 2005 short film “Oculus,” and in building this fulllength film, he made the choice to switch from a male to a female lead, in part inspired by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica, Riddick), who play’s Marie, Tim and Kaylie’s mother. She seizes the role full throttle.

In a genre often better known for ax- and chainsaw-wielding, spurts of blood and blunt-force trauma, the latest entry from Flanagan is far more scalpel than hack-saw, and the chills it engenders have a pervasive linger.